MILWAUKEE — The young woman wore a big red hoodie, and not only because it was cold. As she approached the three-person gauntlet waiting for her right outside the front door of a Milwaukee abortion clinic one morning in late November, she used the hood to hide her face.
“Please don’t do this,” wailed a man holding up a cross taller than him.
“Love that baby,” pleaded Tony Jones.
“It’s a human being,” said Judy Hankel.
The woman entered Affiliated Medical Services without a word. But she wasn’t rid of the activists. The walls weren’t thick enough to drown out the wailing man’s cries.
This kind of street intervention — “sidewalk counselling” in the eyes of its proponents, simple harassment to its critics — is one of the favoured tools of the U.S. pro-life movement. Preventing abortion through one-on-one persuasion, though, is difficult and inefficient. In the last five years, pro-lifers in Wisconsin and around the country have rediscovered a far more effective method: state law.
The Friday attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., for which gunman Robert Dear was charged Monday with first-degree murder, has brought renewed attention to violence against the doctors and facilities providing a legal and highly safe service. But the greatest threat to U.S. abortion access is not terrorism. It’s regulation.
Since the historic 2010 election, when a Tea Party wave helped Republicans take full control of 25 state legislatures, pro-life politicians have passed dozens of benign-sounding restrictions they claim are meant to make abortion safer but which have the uncoincidental effect of making abortion harder to obtain.
“It has nothing to do with the health and safety of women. It has everything to do with religious ideology,” said Affiliated director Wendie Ashlock.
The Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the Texas version of these laws this winter. The stakes are high. The court could strike down the new regulations as unjustifiably burdensome on women. It could also deal a severe blow to the abortion rights enshrined by the landmark Roe v. Wadedecision of 1973.
“Any time the court takes up a case like abortion, you never know what could happen,” said Pro-Life Wisconsin legislative director Matt Sande.“What’s going to happen? In a presidential year. This is huge. And we say, ‘Bring it on.’ ”
The new laws, promoted by a Washington-based pro-life organization, have been mimicked by Republicans from north to south. Among them: requirements that patients make two separate visits, which can be difficult for poor women; bans on abortion after 20 weeks, with no exceptions for fetal anomalies; requirements that providers tell women what their ultrasound looks like, even if they’d prefer not to hear it.
The laws to be settled by the court next year are the most controversial of all. They require clinics to meet the same construction and staffing requirements as surgical centres, which is often prohibitively expensive, and doctors to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, which is often impossible.
“The pro-abortion industry says abortion is health care. We reject that: abortion is not health care, it is killing. Nonetheless, if they believe abortion is health care, when the state attempts to regulate them as health care providers, they need to put their money where their mouth is,” said Sande.
Texas’s admitting-privileges law has already forced about half of the state’s 41 abortion clinics to close, leaving hundreds of thousands of women hours away from the nearest clinic. Many don’t have cars. Some are turning to dangerous do-it-yourself abortion.
Wisconsin has only three open clinics, two in Milwaukee. Affiliated, the only one offering abortions after 18 weeks, would have to close if Gov. Scott Walker’s admitting-privileges law took effect. If that happened, Ashlock said, patients who can now get seen immediately would have to wait six weeks or more.
Milwaukee is one of the country’s poorest cities. Affiliated’s doctor, a young woman who requested anonymity to protect her safety, said many of her patients are low-income black women in their early 20s who already have at least one child and can’t afford another. She warned of a return to the inequities of the pre-Roeyears.
“Patients who have resources would be able to travel and access safe abortion care. Patients who don’t have those resources, which is most of our patients, would either have unplanned, unwanted children who have significantly worse life prospects as a result of that, or they will have illegal and possibly unsafe abortions,” she said.
A federal appeals court savaged the Wisconsin law in a ruling last week. Judge Richard Posner said such laws “do little or nothing” for women’s health — and, in fact, endanger women’s health by forcing them to wait longer for procedures least risky when done early.
“Opponents of abortion reveal their true objectives when they procure legislation limited to a medical procedure — abortion — that rarely produces a medical emergency,” he wrote.
Sporadic repudiations from the courts have not slowed the legislative push. Republicans strengthened their hold on state governments in the 2014 election. And the recent controversy over videos showing Planned Parenthood officials casually discussing the transfer of fetal tissue has given new momentum to bills even conservative Republicans had let languish.
“I think there’s a bit of complacency with American women,” said Ashlock. “They’re not understanding what they’re going to lose if they don’t start speaking up.”