Sneak Attacks on Women's Health Stir a Movement Across State Lines

Attacks on women’s health in the states are not a new development. The last few years in particular have seen a wave of proposed and enacted restrictions on abortion rights, with a shocking 135 restrictions enacted in dozens of states in 2011 and 2012 sessions. 2013 began no differently, with the first three months of the new year seeing legislators in 14 states introduce bans, including 10 proposals that would ban nearly all abortions. But recently, from Texas to Ohio to North Carolina, the pace and intensity of these attacks has picked up even more, drawing local protests, national attention, and displays of solidarity from state lawmakers across the country.

Even with TV networks largely silent, a large portion of the nation was transfixed last week on the filibuster by Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, a drama that ended in chaos in the early morning hours and drew a peak audience of 182,000 viewers online from all over the nation. That audience included many lawmakers from other states who had either seen — or were fearing — similar moves in their states. Progressive state legislators from Ohio, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, Montana, and Connecticut all tweeted their solidarity with Sen. Davis during her hours-long speech on the Senate floor in Austin.

Ohio saw this latest multi-state foray in the war on women cross over its borders just days later, as conservative lawmakers succeeded in their attempt to include some of the nation’s most abortion restrictions in the state budget. The budget was signed into law on Sunday night, to an accompanying (and familiar) visual of Gov. John Kasich and a collection of male elected officials smiling ear-ear-to-ear. At a rally against the bill, Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner referenced Sen. Davis’ filibuster in Texas as inspiration for legislators across the nation standing up for reproductive rights. “Women in Texas, all over the country, and right here in Ohio are fed up,” said Sen. Turner. “This isn’t about one bill or one state, it is about the unrelenting obsession with regulating a woman’s womb.”

Meanwhile, a day after 1,200 people swarmed the North Carolina state legislature in the ninth weekly “Moral Monday" protest, lawmakers in that state attempted to sneak through their own stringent restrictions on abortion clinics. Perhaps befitting a state that has seen a deluge of legislation this year ranging from the absurd to the terrifying, the approach chosen by anti-choice forces in North Carolina’s case was... unique. Instead of including draconian anti-women’s health measures in the budget, or calling multiple special sessions to pass bills, North Carolina conservatives attached the language to a bill intended to ban the practice of Sharia law and attempted to rush it to a vote in a matter of hours. “It seems to me that they’re trying to pass under cover of darkness legislation that would not otherwise be passed… they’re trying to pull a Texas,” said Suzanne Buckley, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina.

Speaking on the floor during the surprise debate Tuesday night, North Carolina State Sen. Martin Nesbitt had a stern warning for those of his colleagues who had backed the sneak attack. “We have a state full of people out there that don't even know we're doing this,” said Sen. Nesbitt. “That crowd that is going to descend on you when you get back down here…. It is a frontal attack on these facilities that offer women's health care to women.”

The legislative language of the bill in North Carolina shares many similarities with the language introduced in Texas and Ohio. The tactics used by the legislation’s proponents — underhanded methods intended to avoid the public spotlight and speed passage — also seem similar to one another. But what supporters of these measures perhaps didn’t count on was the similar public outrage provoked, state by state. The events in recent days in Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina have sparked uprisings, both in person outside state capitols and online through social media. While the legislative tactics of anti-abortion forces may succeed in the short term, the movement they are helping to galvanize in opposition may yet be the most lasting legacy of the events of the past few weeks.

For more on the war on women in the states, see PSN's 2013 Health Care Session Roundup.