Women’s Battle for Access to Safe Abortion in the US

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By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

The Supreme Court of the United States is currently deciding on the case of Whole Woman's  Health v Hellerstedt and is debating whether to uphold or strike down the rigorous regulations contained in a Texas law known as House Bill 2 (or HB2). The provisions of HB2 require that all abortion clinics on the territory of Texas meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, or mini-hospitals, and impose an obligation on doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Whole Woman‘s Health is the first major abortion case that the highest court of the US is ruling on in more than two decades. As such, its outcome will bear serious implications on a number of similar cases currently pending before state courts and will not only affect tens of thousands of women residing in Texas but also potentially millions more throughout the whole country.

The main question posed before the Court is essentially whether the standards set by HB2 are justified inasmuch as they represent the legitimate effort of the Texas government to ensure better protection of women’s health or they unduly burden women’s constitutional rights by virtue of rendering their access to safe abortion increasingly difficult.

Regardless of one’s stance on abortion or the risks associated with it, from a purely practical point of view, the restrictions placed on abortion providers are unrealistic and unnecessarily onerous. Evidence for this can be found in the fact that the granting of admitting privileges by local hospitals to abortion doctors entails a lengthy procedure and is a somewhat rare occurrence, especially in more conservative communities in Texas. Moreover, for an abortion clinic to meet the same standards as a mini-hospital, it has to have rooms of identical size as well as the same corridor width, closet space and nursing staffing even though this is not, for the purposes of performing an abortion procedure, medically or practically necessary. Thus, the requirements set by HB2 caused a significant reduction in the number of facilities providing abortion – from 41 in 2013 to 18 at present, with a view of this number dropping below 10 if the Supreme Court upholds the stipulations of HB2.

The issue of ‘undue burden’ arises with women’s right to terminate a pregnancy being unconstitutionally limited by the law in three different ways. Firstly, there is a geographical restriction to abortion which comes as a result of the large number of clinics that were shut down and which forces women to travel to the ones still remaining even if they are hundreds of miles away from their homes. Secondly, there is an issue with capacity, namely the concern that the limited number of functioning abortion facilities will not be able to handle the high demand for such procedures, especially considering that there are around 70,000 abortions per year in Texas alone. And thirdly, the few clinics spread out around the state will most probably experience an unprecedented surge in new clients that can lead to a problem with delaying the procedure as it could be the case that women would need weeks to make an appointment. This in itself poses the danger of an increase in the number of the much riskier abortions in the second trimester.

Evidently, any claim that this piece of Texas legislation serves to protect women’s health, as opposed to simply aiming to prevent abortion, is beyond gratuitous. The hope of removing the currently existing barriers to having safe legal abortions by striking down the law imposing these expensive, unnecessary and, on occasions, impossible standards on abortion providers now lies solely at the discretion of the justices of the Supreme Court who have the opportunity to put a positive end to this controversial and widely-debated issue in American society.