Fighting Back: The Women’s Health Protection Act

Debra L. Ness

December 3, 2013

Vitally important legislation, the Women’s Health Protection Act, was introduced in the Senate and House last month. It is sorely needed to counter the relentless attacks on women’s access to abortion care in states across the country.

A woman’s reproductive rights should not be determined by the composition of her state government. We thank Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Representative Judy Chu (D-CA) for leading the charge in their respective chambers.

The Women’s Health Protection Act is federal legislation introduced in response to the flood of state laws that restrict access to abortion care. It would support women’s ability to make personal health care decisions unhindered by callous and unnecessary state regulations. In recent years, those working to restrict women’s reproductive rights changed their plan of attack. Instead of focusing solely on overturning Roe v. Wade, they also are working to put access to abortion services out of reach for millions of women. It is terrifying that they have made real progress toward that goal by cynically disguising onerous and unnecessary abortion restrictions as safety measures when, in fact, their sole purpose is to close clinics and limit women’s access to abortion care.

For example, legislation enacted in Texas this year subjects abortion clinics and providers to needless regulations that could close more than half the clinics in the state. Under the law, an abortion clinic is required to meet all the standards of an ambulatory surgical center, even though abortion is one of the safest outpatient procedures – but these requirements would not apply to other health care facilities that provide medically comparable procedures. To meet the requirements to be designated as an ambulatory surgical center, clinics would have to make structural changes such as widening their hallways, building separate janitors' closets and adding more parking spaces – changes  that have nothing to do with patient safety. The required changes could cost clinics tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Medical groups, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have said that these new rules would have a negligible benefit and that practices already in place protect women’s health.The Texas law would also require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. But few abortion providers are able to obtain such privileges, either because religiously affiliated hospitals typically reject abortion providers' applications for admitting privileges or because hospitals often require providers with admitting privileges to admit a certain number of patients per year or live a certain distance from the hospital. Hospital admitting privileges do nothing to improve patient safety and only serve to shut clinics down and decrease access to safe abortion care. In the rare event a patient experiences a serious complication at an abortion clinic, that patient can be transferred and admitted to a hospital regardless of whether the provider performing the abortion has admitting privileges. Clinics where providers cannot get these privileges have been forced to stop providing abortions, and in many cases close their doors.

The Women’s Health Protection Act would make it clear that the Texas law, and others like it in effect across the country, are illegal because they single out abortion for unnecessary regulation, do nothing to improve patient safety, and violate women's rights by restricting access to safe abortion care. The bill would also repair and preserve the patient-provider relationship by allowing medical professionals to provide accurate information to their patients and make decisions based on their best medical judgment.

The barrage of laws passed to restrict access to abortion care has forced doctors to practice “bad medicine” that is based on the political ideologies of extremist lawmakers, not doctors’ medical knowledge or the needs of their patients. Nineteen states now mandate women receive inaccurate information before they receive an abortion, including inaccurate claims about the long-term effects of abortion on mental health and a supposed link between abortion and breast cancer that has absolutely no basis in fact. In 12 states, women are forced to have an ultrasound, and in some cases the abortion provider is required to put the ultrasound monitor in front of the woman, describe it and make her listen to the heartbeat before an abortion, regardless of whether her doctor thinks she needs the ultrasound or not. The Women's Health Protection Act would end this dangerous and abhorrent intrusion into women's health care.

If enacted, the Women’s Health Protection Act would begin to reverse the devastating impact of years of callous attacks on women’s health. It would allow women to make their own personal health care decisions regardless of where they live, and protect the relationship between a woman and her health care provider. Women’s constitutional rights are under attack and they need the full weight of the federal government behind them. We strongly urge the Senate and House to pass this legislation.

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