Editorial: Women’s rights on abortion languish, without a fair debate

Published: Sunday, Jul. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

The spate of new state laws restricting women's reproductive rights, including the right to end a pregnancy, demonstrates yet again why state legislative elections matter – and provides a cautionary tale for those who would depend on courts alone to protect rights.

In the 2010 election, 22 state legislative chambers changed majority control – all becoming Republican-controlled, thus allowing them to control the decennial process of redrawing political districts that last until 2020. In 2012, Democrats regained seven chambers but the Republican domination of state legislatures continues.

So no one should be surprised that these legislatures are passing laws that restrict reproductive rights. That is part of the Republican platform.

This year, North Dakota passed a law banning abortions after six weeks into a pregnancy, Arkansas after 12 weeks. Nine states have banned abortion after 20 weeks. Twenty states have banned abortion coverage in state insurance exchanges that start enrolling people in October. Six states now require ultrasounds before an abortion. Thirty-four states have rules that require abortion clinics to upgrade to meet requirements of a surgery center or hospital.

Unfortunately, many of these measures have been stealth measures, enacted with little debate.

In North Carolina, for example, the Republican-controlled state Senate passed a bill this last week, ostensibly to ban the state from following Islamic law, but it had morphed into an anti-abortion bill. A former state senator, now a U.S. senator, objected through Twitter: "North Carolinians expect transparency, not procedural tricks."

In Ohio, state legislators added anti-abortion amendments to a budget bill and the governor signed it last Sunday night. A state senator objected that they should have debated the legislation openly, on its own: "But they did not have the courage to do that, so they tucked it into a budget bill."

And Texas, of course, has now become infamous for Gov. Rick Perry's attempts to fast-track anti-abortion legislation as an "emergency priority." Legislators, in a second special session after state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered for 11 hours, limited testimony at a public hearing.

Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin quietly signed an anti-abortion bill on Friday, in the middle of the July Fourth holiday weekend.

Could it be that these Republican-controlled legislatures and governors do not want public exposure of these actions?

These measures – which get at the heart of women's role in society, the fundamental right of the woman to choose whether to bear children, the relationship between women and their doctors, and the interest of states in protecting unborn children after the stage of viability – deserve a free and fair debate.

For those who oppose these latest actions in state legislatures, chanting inside or outside legislative galleries or relying on defensive legal strategies should be no substitute for campaign organizing and electing people to office.

Roe v. Wade, decided 40 years ago, said that during roughly the first trimester (three months) of pregnancy, the decision on abortion should be between a woman and her doctor. During the second trimester, states may regulate abortions but may not pose an "undue burden" on a woman's freedom to decide whether to end her pregnancy. At the stage of viability – considered to be around 23 to 24 weeks with the support of neonatal intensive care units, usually later – states have an interest in preserving the life of the unborn and can limit, even ban, abortions, except when necessary to save a woman's life.

That leaves a lot of room for debate in state legislatures. It is time for both sides to engage in discussion and persuasion – and to stop avoiding it either through stealth measures or reliance on courts.

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