Reproductive rights activists are fighting back against Republicans’ anti-abortion agenda with their own wave of state legislation — and not just in Democratic strongholds. Dozens of bills seeking to protect reproductive rights are cropping up in deeply red pockets of the country in an attempt to counter ongoing efforts by Republicans to restrict abortion or outlaw it altogether.
In Missouri — which has some of the harshest anti-abortion laws on the books — Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill to recognize abortion “as an essential component of women’s healthcare” and that it “shall be made affordable and accessible throughout the state and integrated into the health care safety net.”
In Republican-dominated Illinois, HB 40 would repeal the state’s “trigger” law that says if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, it “triggers” an automatic reversal to Illinois’ pre-Roe law that made abortion illegal.
Of course, the likelihood of these kinds of bills actually becoming law in GOP-controlled states remains slim. But that’s not necessarily the point right away, said Amanda Allen, the senior state legislative counsel from Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal organization that works to protect reproductive rights and abortion access. It will take time to fully combat conservative anti-abortion laws, she pointed out, and it starts with sending a message. “We’re at the starting point where we have interest at the state level and have voices on the ground pushing for this. It’s heartening to see the momentum.”
Some of these bills have already been shot down. In Virginia, Democrats introduced one of the most comprehensive pro-choice measures this year in the form of Whole Women’s Health Act, which sought to make sure that “any statute that places a burden on a woman’s access to abortion without conferring any legitimate health benefit is unenforceable.” It died earlier this month before leaving committee.
Still, pro-choice activists say there is a direct relationship between the rise in proactive legislation this year — even if it’s largely symbolic — and the 2016 election that handed Republicans control in Congress and statehouses across the country.
“We’re seeing extremist politicians threatening abortion and reproductive access from the state, local, and federal level,” said Allen. “So it’s not surprising that we’re seeing this groundswell of support to protect abortion access around the country.”
So far this year, lawmakers in 40 states have introduced at least 160 bills to protect reproductive rights in 40 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonpartisan organization that tracks legislation around reproductive issues. Some of these bills — in New York and Georgia, for instance — would expand coverage for emergency contraception and Medicaid coverage for birth control, respectively.
Many of these measures seek to overturn the wave of abortion restrictions that Republicans have passed in rapid succession in recent years. In the past five years, nearly 300 anti-abortion laws have been enacted in states across the country.
“Since 2011 we’ve seen an absolute avalanche of attempts to attack women’s healthcare,” said Allen. “But it’s important to remember that that wave of anti-choice legislation did not happen because the public asked for it.” About 7 in 10 Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, a level of support that hasn’t really wavered in the four decades since the 1973 landmark decision that affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion.
Following their sweeping electoral victory in the 2016 election, Republicans have wasted no time in trying to restrict access to abortion and reproductive healthcare for women. In the first weeks of the 2017 legislative session, state lawmakers introduced dozens of anti-abortion bills. This agenda is echoed on the national level: Soon after his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban taxpayer money from going to any NGO that performs or provides counseling on abortions abroad. Health Secretary Tom Price is also an outspoken opponent of abortion and opposes increasing access to contraception and reproductive rights for women. Vice President Mike Pence, who has long been a fierce opponent to abortion, made it clear during an appearance at the anti-abortion March for Life last month that the current administration will make the issue a priority. For the first time in years, reproductive rights activists are talking about the repeal of Roe v. Wade as a real (although still unlikely) possibility.
This backlash is not limited to protecting abortion rights. Another wave of bills seeks to expand access to contraception and make it easier for women to pay for it. Bills like Missouri’s HB 233, New York’s A579, and New Jersey’s AB 2297 would allow women to receive a 12-month supply of birth control at a time instead of six months, which makes it easier for women to obtain contraception now, when it’s still covered by insurance. Other measures, in Iowa, Oregon, South Carolina, and Hawaii are “pharmacy access bills” that expand the kind of birth control that pharmacies can give women over the counter.
This year has seen an uptick in bills specifically concerning insurance coverage — specifically, attempts to protect the provision under Obamacare that made all types of birth control free, said Elizabeth Nash at the Guttmacher Institute. These include bills like New Mexico’s HB 284, New York’s AB1378, Hawaii’s SB 403, and Oregon’s HB 2232, which seek to enshrine the mandate on insurance companies to provide contraception at no cost to women. Nash said the increase in these kinds of bills this year is “not too surprising” given the threat as Republicans in Congress actively seek to repeal Obamacare.
Activists for reproductive rights are using some of the tools of their opponents. Much of the legislation being introduced this year comes from progressive think tanks like the Public Leadership Institute, which creates draft legislation for lawmakers to introduce in their statehouses. PLI’s “playbook” includes dozens of draft bills to protect abortion rights and expand contraception coverage. This mirrors the tactics of anti-abortion groups like Americans United for Life, which has its own packet of draft legislation that lawmakers have used for years to pass restrictive laws.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLbecker