With all that’s happened politically over the least several months, it’s easy to forget there was a major U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer that reaffirmed the constitutional right to access abortion. The Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt ruling that came out in June of 2016 pushed back strongly against many of the hundreds of restrictions that states have enacted since the 1973 decision that legalized abortion; and in particular the nearly 300 restrictions that have been passed since 2011.
While the Court had held in previous decisions that states could enact some restrictions, the 2016 ruling set the standard that these restrictions must be based on medical evidence (not ideological belief) and that restrictions must improve the health and safety of the patient seeking the abortion. The court also instructed states that they must weigh the benefit of these policies with the potential harm that may come from making abortion more inaccessible. It was a major victory for the cause of reproductive freedom.
The mere fact that the Court issued this ruling, however, doesn’t mean that the hundreds of potentially unconstitutional laws on the books across the country were automatically struck down. Instead, lawmakers and advocates across the country must still introduce and pass laws to repeal these restrictions and/or challenge their legality in court (as is happening in North Carolina right now with the state’s 20-week abortion ban).
In keeping with this imperative, some North Carolina lawmakers are taking action to restore reproductive freedom in the state, by recently introducing a bill entitled “An Act Repealing Laws in Conflict with the US Supreme Court Decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt” (“The Whole Women’s Health Act”, for short).
Sadly, North Carolina has a long history of enacting politically-motivated restrictions on abortion that have had nothing to do with medical care and everything to do with restricting access to the procedure; and this bill will not repeal all of them. What this bill does, however, is repeal the most arbitrary restrictions that have been shown to be nothing more than attempts to block patients from accessing abortion and intimidate abortion providers, including:
- The 72-hour waiting period: Waiting periods have always been based on the false and sexist notions that women aren’t capable of making their own decisions, or that they are somehow too flighty to think about a decision unless the state instructs them to do so. The truth, of course, is that most patients have thought very carefully about their decision before they even pick up the phone to make an appointment; and a recent study showed very few change their mind during a mandated waiting period.
- The mandated, legislator-written script for physicians: There is no reason for politicians to insert themselves into exam rooms and tell doctors what to tell their patients about abortion; especially when that information is not based on medical evidence. National medical associations oppose such measures for destructively interfering in the doctor/patient relationship.
- The mandated viewing of ultrasounds by patients seeking abortion: As with mandatory waiting periods, this is another attempt by anti-abortion politicians to insert themselves into exam rooms where they don’t belong based on the demonstrably false notion that women don’t think deeply about the decisions they make.
- The stockpiling of private ultrasound test results by the state: There is no reason for government officials to collect and stockpile these images except to further erode the privacy of patients seeking abortion, and to second-guess physicians’ professional decisions.
- The 20-week abortion ban: Abortions later in pregnancy are extremely rare, but when they do occur, it is because something serious has happened. To make a patient travel to another state because of an arbitrary time limit makes an already extremely difficult situation for the patient even worse.
- “Sex-selective” abortion bans: This North Carolina law is more about what has happened in other countries, and mainly serves to perpetuate racist stereotypes about Asian Americans seeking reproductive health care in the state. Laws such as ensuring equal pay for equal work and better protections for sexual violence survivors would do more to combat sexism and its destructive impacts than this type of ban.
In addition to repealing these unconstitutional laws, the Whole Women’s Health Act would prevent lawmakers from enacting further arbitrary restrictions, and bring North Carolina in line with the 2016 Supreme Court ruling. Perhaps just as importantly, it would also make sure state law better reflects public opinion in a society in which seven in ten Americans support safe and legal access to abortion for those who make that decision.
It’s time for North Carolina lawmakers to stop their interference in the most personal of health decisions and pass this vital legislation before the federal courts force them to do so.