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Update on the State(s) of Abortion Access

Update on the State(s) of Abortion Access

Over the past year, I’ve followed a slew of state-level abortion laws, which are advancing and passing at alarming rates. In the first half of 2015, states enacted 51 new abortion restrictions, bringing the total number of restrictions passed to 282 in the past five years.

Though legislative activity is generally quiet in the states in July, with most state legislatures having completed their session for the year, it’s still an important time for state-level abortion policy. In many states, the new fiscal year begins July 1, meaning that any new abortion laws—or anti-abortion laws, in most cases—passed in the most recent legislative session were set to take effect earlier this month.

Thankfully, challenges to these laws in federal court have delayed their enactment—at least temporarily.

The biggest state-level news this week comes from North Dakota, where a federal appeals court ruled unconstitutional the state’s law banning abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, which can be as early as six weeks of gestation, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. A panel of judges on the Eighth Circuit Court unanimously affirmed the lower court’s decision. Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote for the Court: "Because there is no genuine dispute that [the law] generally prohibits abortions before viability — as the Supreme Court has defined that concept — and because we are bound by Supreme Court precedent holding that states may not prohibit pre-viability abortions, we must affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment to the plaintiffs." In Plain English: they struck down the law.

The “fetal heartbeat” law was not North Dakota’s only attempt to limit abortion access over the past year. In November 2014, a fetal personhood measure appeared on the state ballot. By defining a fetus as a person, this law would have outlawed abortion with no exceptions; banned or severely restricted access to emergency contraception and many common forms of birth control; and allowed for criminal investigations into a woman’s miscarriage to determine whether she was responsible. This is outrageous!

Though North Dakota encompasses 70,700 square miles, only one abortion clinic operates in the state: the Red River Clinic in Fargo, on the state’s eastern border with Minnesota. The clinic, which performs about 1,250 abortions a year, provides abortion and reproductive health services thanks to out-of-state physicians licensed to practice in North Dakota. The nearest abortion clinics are not nearby: there’s one four hours south in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and another four hours southeast in Minneapolis. The vast distance between these clinics already proves a significant barrier for North Dakota women seeking to access an abortion; banning abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat would add an additional, dangerous layer to the existing web of obstacles.

As Reform Jews, we believe firmly in a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and to have safe, legal and affordable access to health care. All life is sacred in Judaism. An unborn fetus is precious and to be protected, but Judaism views the life and well-being of the woman as paramount, placing a higher value on existing life than on potential life. As our tradition commands women to care for their own health and well-being above all else, we must continue to fight to ensure that all women and their families have safe, legal and affordable access to all health care services, unburdened by restrictive state policies. Looking back to the national level, urge your Members of Congress to oppose dangerous restrictions on reproductive health care access!

Published: 7/27/2015

Categories: Social Justice