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Editorial

An assault on women's right to choose

More than 370 bills are in the works in state capitals seeking to restrict women's constitutional right to an abortion. These unprecedented attacks are backed by many who claim to fear government intrusion into private affairs.

April 01, 2011

Imagine you decided to have a medical procedure but state law said that, even though your doctor supported your decision, you had to be screened to see if you were mentally fit for it, and then had to go to a clinic that directly opposes doing the procedure and listen to its spiel before you could go ahead. Most of us would call that unconscionable interference in our ability to make decisions about our own health.

Now imagine you're a pregnant woman in South Dakota.

Under a law signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard last week, women who seek an abortion will have to wait 72 hours, undergo two visits to physicians to be checked for unspecified physical and mental risk factors, and be proselytized by an antiabortion counseling center before they can have the procedure. This in a state with just one center that offers abortions, which are performed by an out-of-state doctor who flies in a couple of times a month. In other words, a few days of waiting could add up to a lot more.

The South Dakota law is among 371 pieces of legislation that have been making headway in state capitals during the last few months — none of them in California — seeking to restrict and in some cases all but remove women's access to abortions, according to the National Abortion Rights Action League. Not only is that more than twice as many antiabortion bills as last year, but, like the South Dakota law, many of the appalling bills are making swifter and surer progress toward passage.

Measures to make abortion illegal after 20 weeks of pregnancy are advancing in Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama and at least 10 other states, and Ohio is considering banning abortions after the first fetal heartbeat is detected at about six weeks. That bill flies directly in the face of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not restrict a woman's right to abortion during the first trimester; it also sharply limited states' ability to restrict such rights until the fetus might be able to live outside the womb — about 24 weeks.

Legislation in Texas would have required women to undergo a sonogram before an abortion; it has been amended to require that they be offered the chance to do so, though they can refuse. More than 20 states are considering restrictions on insurance coverage for abortion. In Arizona, a bill would prohibit any business from winning state contracts if its employee health insurance includes abortion coverage.

At the federal level, the House is likely to pass two bills to restrict abortion rights. Women would be prevented from using even their tax saver healthcare accounts, which allow employees to set aside pretax earnings to pay medical expenses, for abortion services, and hospitals that do not believe in abortion, such as Roman Catholic ones, would be allowed to withhold the procedure from women even in a life-or-death emergency.

This unprecedented attack on women's reproductive rights was set off by Republican Party gains in November's election, especially those by "tea party" members, the very politicians who clamor the loudest against any government intrusion in personal healthcare decisions.

It's easy to understand the objections that abortion opponents have to the procedure and their fervor to end it. If people consider terminating pregnancy to be tantamount to murder, they will have little tolerance for the differing beliefs of others. But this matter was settled by the 1973 Roe decision, which held that attempts to limit a woman's right to an abortion during early pregnancy were unconstitutional infringements on her right to privacy, just as they would be for any other medical procedure.

Lawsuits will fly over many of the bills that ultimately become law, and that's part of the strategy. Reproductive-rights groups will be so busy going after the most egregious laws that some of the less clearly unconstitutional ones will go unchallenged.

Polls show that most Americans continue to support the Roe decision; South Dakota voters have twice in recent years rejected proposals to ban most abortions in the state. Studies and data show that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is with high-quality sex education and access to birth control. That's not included in any of these state proposals.

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