When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to a strict Arkansas abortion law last month, it effectively made Arkansas the first state in the country to ban medication abortion. As a result, anyone seeking an abortion in Arkansas now has to travel out of state or to Little Rock, where the state’s only surgical abortion provider is located. (Surgical abortion is still legal.)
There is no health-related reason for this ban on medication abortion. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000, non-invasive medication abortion is safe by all measures — safer than Tylenol and Viagra, even. That’s why many women chose it over surgical abortion, itself one of the safest medical procedures.
The law requires medication abortion providers to contract with a second doctor who holds hospital admitting privileges. It is nearly identical to a 2013 law passed in my home state of Texas, which I’m sorry to say has one of the most abysmal records on reproductive rights and women’s health in the country. In 2016, the Supreme Court heard Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt and deemed the Texas law unconstitutional.
So what makes Arkansas different? The truth is that it’s not. We don’t know why the Supreme Court chose not to take the case challenging the Arkansas law, but the case is not over. It is back in the trial court, where Planned Parenthood is continuing to fight to have it blocked.
Arkansas is just the beginning. Conservative politicians, emboldened by the Trump administration, are attempting to roll back abortion rights in many states across the country.
Politicians in Missouri and Louisiana are pushing medically unnecessary restrictions that would make abortion much more difficult in those states. Mississippi and Louisiana have both passed 15-week abortion bans, the fate of which will be decided by the courts. And Iowa has passed one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bills into law, banning abortions after six weeks. (A judge has placed a temporary injunction on Iowa’s so-called heartbeat law.)
Before Roe v. Wade, healthy women routinely died in emergency rooms across the country because of botched abortions. Limiting access to abortion does not eliminate the need for abortion; it only makes abortion illegal and unsafe.
A heavy burden has been placed on the Arkansas patients denied care with no backup plan. Women in Fayetteville, for instance, are facing a 380-mile round trip to the only remaining abortion provider in their state. This takes time and money that many don’t have. Nearly 1 in 5 people in Arkansas lives below the poverty line, and women with low incomes already face severe barriers to accessing reproductive care.
On the morning that the court declined to take up the Arkansas appeal, some women were already en route to one of the state’s three abortion clinics when they got word that their appointments were canceled.
Dr. Stephanie Ho, a physician at Planned Parenthood Great Plains in Arkansas, had to place some of those calls. “It’s incredibly disheartening to call a patient and say you qualified for this last week, but your government says that’s a decision you no longer get to make,” she said.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the new requirement “does nothing to enhance the quality or safety of abortion care, and in fact creates a grave risk to public health.” It’s for this reason that Planned Parenthood is continuing to fight the Arkansas law, doing everything possible to protect patients’ access to care as the case proceeds.
Abortion has been and will always be essential health care. The good news is that the American people know it. Support for Roe v. Wade is the highest it’s ever been, at 70 percent. With more women running for elected office than ever before, I’m hopeful that these harmful policies will soon become relics of the past.
Cecile Richards is the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. She is the author of “Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.”
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