By Talcott Camp, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
Arkansans have plenty of health needs their politicians should address — from the third highest maternal mortality rate in the U.S. to an opioid epidemic. Yet Arkansas politicians have spent their energies blocking a woman's access to abortion care with ever crueler means.
Before 2017, Arkansas was already a leader in the campaign to obstruct and hinder reproductive rights. The state tried to ban abortion at 12 weeks, a law that the ACLU fought and defeated. But many onerous restrictions remain. Arkansas forces a woman to make an extra, unnecessary trip to a physician to hear state-mandated information; then to delay care for at least 48 hours; and then to make another trip back to the provider to get her abortion. The state also bans abortion coverage in state insurance exchange plans.
This year, Arkansas lawmakers enacted a slew of new restrictions that practically prohibit access to abortion services. Here’s what they do:
- Ban a medically proven abortion method. One measure bans the safe, medically-proven method that is used for essentially all abortions past the first trimester in the state. This is Arkansas lawmakers’ attempt to deny a woman access to the care she wants as her pregnancy progresses.
- Allow a woman’s sexual partner (or abuser) to block an abortion. Another measure requires that the patient and her medical provider treat the embryonic or fetal tissue under the same law that directs disposition of the body of a family member who has died. A woman’s sexual partner then has equal say in what happens to that tissue, which means he must be notified of her abortion. This would effectively allow that partner — even an abuser — to block an abortion by withholding consent. This is a grotesque intrusion into a woman’s privacy, and could well threaten her safety.
- Demand medical records of a woman’s entire reproductive life. Another new restriction bans abortion unless the physician requests all medical records related to the patient’s entire pregnancy history — potentially spanning decades, and regardless of where she received pregnancy care, and in what language her medical records are written — and then devote undefined “reasonable time and effort” to obtaining those records. There is no medical justification for this intrusion into a woman’s privacy. Since abortion providers cannot possibly comply with such a sweeping mandate in all cases, this measure would limit their ability to provide care.
- Increase the power of state regulators to shut down abortion providers. Arkansas lawmakers also required that the state health department suspend or revoke the license of any facility providing abortion, for any violation of any rule, no matter how minuscule. No other types of health care facilities are subject to this type of medically unnecessary over-regulation.
- Force doctors to give patient information to local police. Arkansas has a robust state system for reporting any suspected abuse of minors. Nonetheless, lawmakers decided to increase the burden on abortion providers providing services for any patient under 17 years old. In all cases, even when there is no indication of a crime or abuse and where there is parental consent, the provider must report the young woman’s abortion to the local police, inform the police of where the patient lives, and have the police retrieve the tissue from the abortion to preserve it as “evidence.” This invasion of medical privacy does nothing to enhance public safety.
Last week, along with our colleagues at the Center for Reproductive Rights, ACLU of Arkansas, and Planned Parenthood, we filed two lawsuits challenging these five restrictions.
After last year’s Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which made it clear that a woman has the right to get abortion care with dignity and without needless barriers, one would think that state legislators would halt such efforts. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in just the first three months of 2017, lawmakers around the country introduced 431 measures that would restrict access to abortion care.
Every day, women in Arkansas and across the United States struggle to get the care they need as lawmakers impose new ways to shut down clinics and make abortion unavailable. Arkansas women cannot afford to lose further access. They cannot afford to travel hundreds of miles to get to the nearest clinic. And they should not have to endure invasions of privacy and violations of their autonomy.
A woman’s decision to end a pregnancy is hers to make with her family, her faith, and her doctor. We will fight politicians who not only seek to shame, punish, or burden women for making these decisions, but also try to push care out of reach.