To justify their recent vote to defund Planned Parenthood, Republican leadership framed it as a spending cut necessary to “liberate our economy,” even as it undermines the liberty of women and deprives millions of basic care. Additional attacks on women’s rights include a bill Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced (and 150 Republicans cosponsored) to redefine rape by use of force rather than lack of consent. And a bill from Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) would allow hospitals to let women die rather than perform life-saving abortions.
In response, we’ve witnessed an outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood and enough public outcry for Republicans to shelve the forcible rape language. Though much remains to be seen, Planned Parenthood will in all likelihood weather this storm, and for the time being abortion will remain legal, if less accessible. Hell bent as Republicans may be on rescinding women’s rights, the Senate and the President are unlikely to let that happen.
The thing is, the decisions and actions of the President and Congress have far less bearing on our daily lives than those of our governors and state legislatures. In the mid-term elections, Republicans gained nearly 70 seats in Congress. But we heard far less about the party’s stunning gains in the states. Republicans claimed the majority of governorships and turned 22 state legislatures by picking up approximately 700 seats. The Republicans’ mid-term gains were twice the average for the party going into mid-term elections as the minority. Not since 1928 have the Republicans held so many seats in the states.
It is a power shift of serious consequence for three reasons. To illustrate the first point, answer these two questions: Where are you from? And whom did you vote for in the last general election? Odds are good that your answer to the first question is probably your home state, and the answer to the second question is probably a presidential candidate. We usually identify our origins by our home states but identify our politics by federal politicians and policies. The GOP is exploiting this disconnect to block women’s access to reproductive health care in the states.
Secondly, what happens at the state level often predicts what will happen at the federal level. Ideas that gain traction in the states build momentum regionally and then percolate to the federal level. In this way, states are often the incubators for federal policy, and the states are decidedly hostile right now toward a woman’s right to access reproductive healthcare and make decisions about her body.
Thirdly, state legislatures in 44 states are responsible for drawing new district boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives based on 2010 Census figures, and the party in power has tremendous advantage in that process. Republicans will determine the political landscape for the next ten years. And that is bad news for women. Because as disconcerting as the federal attack on women may be, it pales in comparison to – and provides cover for – far more egregious legislation that Republicans are pursuing at the state level.
- In North Dakota, the vote by U.S. House Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood is a moot point, because there are no Planned Parenthood clinics in North Dakota due to a hostile political environment. So it should come as no surprise that state representatives recently voted overwhelmingly to ban abortion.
- In Georgia, State Rep. Bobby Franklin just introduced legislation that would make not only abortions but potentially miscarriages punishable by death. A woman who miscarried would have to prove “no human involvement whatsoever in the causation” of her miscarriage.
- In Texas, the state Senate passed a bill that would require doctors to perform an ultrasound before a woman could receive an abortion. The doctor would have to describe what the sonogram shows to the woman, regardless of whether or not she wants to know. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Dan Patrick, explained that if a woman did not wish to see the sonogram or hear a description of it, she could “tune it out.” Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry continues to push abstinence-only sex education and limit access to contraceptives in spite of the state’s dubious distinction as number one in the nation for repeat teen pregnancies.
- In South Dakota, Rep. Phil Jensen introduced a bill that would codify murder of an abortion provider as justifiable homicide. Fortunately the bill has been shelved for the time being, but another bill is moving forward that would require a woman seeking an abortion to first complete an obstacle course of consultations, including a visit to an anti-choice crisis pregnancy center, many of which masquerade as health centers (fortunately New York City had the good sense to regulate them).
- In Ohio, the legislature called a fetus to “testify,” which is apparently a new euphemism for performing an ultrasound on an expectant mother before a bunch of lawmakers. The “testimony” was in support of the “Heartbeat Bill,” which would ban abortion as soon a heartbeat can be detected.
- In Kansas, minors may have to receive parental consent before getting an abortion. Another bill would criminalize abortion after 22 weeks; similar legislation is being considered in seven other states.
- In Indiana, no less than 13 bills have been introduced that deal with abortion.
- In Nebraska, a bill continues to advance that would ban private insurance companies from providing abortion coverage. If passed, Nebraska would join the company of Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.
- In Iowa, Republicans tried to outlaw abortion and (some contraceptives) by declaring that life begins at conception. Fortunately, the bill died.
All politics is local. And in many states, abortion is as good as illegal, because legislatures have chipped away a woman’s right to access reproductive health care and make decisions about her body, even when her life is at stake.
So if we want to stop the war on women’s rights, we’ve got to fight the most important battles. This is not to say that we should no longer stand with Planned Parenthood or cry foul to Congress. But we should also stand with the state elected officials who defend women’s rights and make sure we don’t inadvertently stand with those who are opposed because we didn’t know their positions. Enter your address at Project Vote Smart to figure out who your elected officials are at all levels of government and what they stand for. Sync your political identity with where you are, and make sure you’re represented there.