2016 was a bad year for women's health. A total of 18 states passed 50 new abortion restrictions, according to a new survey of sexual and reproductive health care policy trends in the US. In 2016, 57 percent of women lived in a state considered either hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights, and only 30 percent of women lived in a state supportive of abortion rights, which is defined as a state with no more than one abortion restriction.
The analysis, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, notes that this has been happening for a long time as Republican-led state legislatures have continued their project of steadily dismantling abortion rights. A total of 338 laws that restrict reproductive rights have been enacted since the Republicans took control of the majority of state governments in 2010. Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, doesn't see this trend reversing anytime soon—and not just because of President-elect Donald Trump's incoming administration.
"It's been hard to remind people that the restrictions aren't just going to be at the federal level," Nash said over the phone. Over the past six years, she explained, state laws restricting abortion have not slowed. In 2015, 57 anti-abortion restrictions were passed, and while the 50 passed this year may seem like a slight reduction, Nash says that we shouldn't expect the assault on reproductive rights to diminish.
"One of the disturbing things is that 50 restrictions were enacted in a year when a handful of state legislatures weren't in session," she explained. "We typically see more enactments [of anti-abortion laws] in the first year of the session." The reason for this is because some state legislatures, like Texas, meet biennially, on odd-numbered years. Lawmakers in those states weren't able to introduce any new bills last year, but now the floodgates are open. "That's why we saw 92 [restrictions] in 2011, 70 in 2013, 57 in 2015," she said.
Adding to the grim prospects for 2017, Iowa and Kentucky can now count themselves among the majority of states with Republicans in complete control of their legislatures. "Given that the composition [of state legislatures] was so far skewed right already, it looks like we will have another year where abortion and restrictions on family planning are on the front burner," Nash explained.
One of the most important successes for abortion rights in 2016 was the outcome of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt in the Supreme Court. The ruling stuck down a harmful and unnecessary provision in Texas that mandated abortion providers must have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The law, enacted in 2013, promoted the lie that abortions are risky and dangerous, and ended up shutting down the majority of clinics in the state.
But there will likely be more restrictions to fight despite the Supreme Court win. "This decision really put abortion opponents on notice; they cannot enact laws without the proof that the restriction has a health benefit. So many restrictions have been adopted without any evidence whatsoever, and the court has said that this is impermissible," Nash said. "But the issue is that many state legislatures ignore court decisions and adopt restrictions without concern for constitutional rights."
Indeed, right-wing lawmakers have proven that they will find new ways to restrict abortion access. Just recently, Ohio banned abortions that take place after 20 weeks, and 15 states already have similar restrictions in effect. Perhaps most disturbing are new laws that require state-mandated funerals for fetuses. Indiana and Louisiana state legislatures passed their own versions of the law last year, and abortion rights proponents are currently fighting them in court. Texas also enacted a rule mandating that health clinics bury all fetal remains from abortions and miscarriages though the state's Health and Safety Code.
"States are looking to this law to close clinics the way they looked to admitting privileges to close clinics. This has been the pattern since 1973," Nash said. "What's happened over time is that a state issues a restriction, it goes to court, the court issues a decision, and abortion opponents review that decision very carefully. Then they just develop a new type of restriction. It's incredibly frustrating because this is health care. We should treat [abortion] like any other public health issue, and it shouldn't be at the beck and call of legislators."
The report outlines that some progress that has been made in progressive states, which have made contraception easier to obtain—which will be important if the Affordable Care Act, along with mandatory contraception coverage, is repealed—but overall, the New Year looks like it's going to be pretty grim for reproductive rights.