It’s the first Monday of January, and for many states across the nation, that means the official start of the 2015 legislative session. Even though we have just finished a 2014 election with strong signs that voters are tired of extremist abortion bans, the prefilled bills for 2015 are already enough to leave reproductive rights activists chewing their nails off. Despite another failed Ohio attempt to pass a ban on abortion at the point in which a heartbeat can be detected, Kansas is prepping its own heartbeat ban proposal and Michigan Tea Party activists are discussing introducing a “life at conception” act. Add in longshot bills like the Missouri spousal consent bill and the Iowa 72 hour abortion waiting period and this legislative session could be another trouncing on abortion rights and access in multiple states, even without the inevitable 20-week bans, admitting privilege bills and telemedicine restrictions.
The bills filled give a view of a legislative onslaught as bad as 2011, 2012 or 2013, the three years that together account for literally hundreds of state level restrictions on abortion and birth control access. There is one major difference between 2015 and these past years, however: This time, activists know what’s coming and are ready to fight it.
One good example is the battle already brewing in Tennessee, where the voters passed Amendment 1 by a small margin during the 2014 midterms. Unlike the other ballot amendments up for popular vote in the country, Tennessee’s amendment language only said that the state constitution didn’t protect the right to an abortion, a change that abortion opponents championed in order to pass more stringent abortion restrictions that had previously been blocked by the state courts.
The amendment itself is still in a legal challenge, with opponents claiming the state wrongly tallied the votes of people who didn’t cast a vote for governor when they counted those who voted on Amendment 1. Legislators, however, are moving on as if the amendment is in effect, and are introducing new proposals that were previously struck down by state courts, including a mandatory ultrasound bill. Although the session has yet to start, local activists have already panned the not-yet-introduced bill, noting the similarities it has to a North Carolina mandatory ultrasound law that was just blocked by the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in mid-December.
Allison Glass, state director for the Healthy and Free Tennessee coalition, piggybacked onto the 4th Circuit decision to argue that Tennessee should abandon their own attempts at similar legislation. “The 4th Circuit overturned the North Carolina bill based on First Amendment protections compelling speech,” she said in a statement. “This was due to the fact that the law required the person doing the ultrasound to describe the image. This same provision is included in House Bill 2, the Tennessee version introduced by Rep. Bill Womick.” She goes on to say:
These bills are designed to intimidate, shame, and coerce people seeking abortion. Research show that forcing someone to undergo an ultrasound when they do not need to or to hear about the image does not change their decision, but it does contradict the principles of informed consent and interferes with the doctor-patient relationship. We do not want to see this kind of out of touch attack on health, safety and personal decision making in our state. We should learn a lesson from this case. These bills are an unconstitutional attack on reproductive freedom. Politicians in Nashville need to stop playing games with reproductive health.
Activists plan to show their legislators their power, too. Healthy and Free Tennessee, Advocates for Women’s And Kids’ Equality and other reproductive rights and justice groups have planned a march on the capital on the opening day of the session to ensure their voices are heard and politicians know who they will be hurting if they pass restrictive, unconstitutional laws.
Tennessee activists won’t be the only ones entering the 2015 session with a game plan for stopping aggressive anti-abortion restrictions. The Center for Reproductive Rights is hoping to see every state not just fight new restrictions coming down the pipeline, but to proactively change the dialogue and regain some of the rights that have been chipped away by medically unnecessary, ideologically-based legislation.
Their suggestions for proactive legislation that can be offered in any state was released in December, in a document entitled “Moving in a New Direction: A Proactive State Policy Resource for Promoting Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice.” In it, the CRR suggests pro-rights, pro-reproductive freedom:
When our elected officials return to work next year, they should focus on advancing measures that truly support women’s health—and reversing the tide of laws that have trampled on women’s rights and blocked their access to health care,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights in a press release announcing the blueprint. “After years of relentless attacks on reproductive health care, millions of women across the nation are now left with rapidly disappearing safe and legal options. This new resource provides forward-thinking and innovative policies for state officials who want to put the lives and well-being of their constituents first. It’s time we move forward with a clear agenda to advance reproductive health, rights, and justice.
Suggestions of positive legislation to enact include “expanding abortion access, implementing the Affordable Care Act, expanding contraception access, and supporting pregnant women’s rights,” according to the release.
Introducing positive, pro-access and women’s health affirming legislation is a no-lose situation, even in states like Ohio, Indiana, and others with super-majority GOP legislatures and Republican governors at the helm. Regardless of whether a bill will ever pass a full vote, the mere introduction of the bills provide a contrast between what pro-choice advocates believe—that the decision to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth should always rest with the pregnant person—and what anti-choice legislators believe—that from the moment conception happens, that new unborn being has a right to life that supersedes the needs, wants or rights of the person carrying it.
We have reached the point in a number of legislatures where lawmakers are truly representing the most extreme of anti-abortion views, far more extreme than the voters they represent. Bringing in proactive bills recenters the debate back to where it belongs—on the rights of the pregnant woman. It makes it clear how far away from the mainstream today’s anti-abortion politicians truly have moved.
Gather our allies at the capitol. Fight the new restrictions even before they have been proposed. Put out our own bills to center the debate back onto the rights of pregnant people. If we focus on each of these, we can do our best to make 2015 more successful than the legislative sessions that came before.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist. Her current project, Clinic Stories, focuses on telling the history of legal abortion one clinic at a time. Robin’s articles have appeared at Slate, Cosmopolitan.com, Rolling Stone, Ms. Magazine and other publications.