By Adrienne R. Ghorashi
After what seemed like a barrage of legislative attacks on abortion rights last month, some states are hitting back by strengthening their laws to protect the right to an abortion. Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have all passed legislation this year expanding access to abortion in various ways. In the current political climate, where some fear that Roe v. Wade is in danger of being gutted or overturned, state legislatures are a key battleground in the abortion fight. Legislatures and courts alike have been testing the very limits of the constitutional protections cemented in Roe. As deference to Roe wavers in the courts, enacting proactive legislation is a strategy that advocates of abortion access are paying close attention to.
New York’s Reproductive Health Act, passed this January, is a sweeping measure that codifies the protections of Roe within state law. The NY law regulates abortion as healthcare, rather than a criminal act, and expands the types of qualified healthcare professionals that may provide abortion. It also extends post-24 week protections where a pregnant individual’s health or life is in danger, or the fetus is not viable. New laws in Rhode Island, Illinois, and Vermont were also signed into law earlier this month, providing broader protections for individuals seeking abortion care. For reproductive rights advocates, these are legislative victories that come on the heels of a decades-long battle.
Before the most recent wave of proactive legislation, just eight states had statutes codifying the right to an abortion up to viability, according to data published by the Center for Public Health Law Research’s Abortion Law Project. The data, available on LawAtlas.org, also explore court opinions that interpret state constitutional provisions, such as the right to privacy, as protecting abortion rights.
State law initiatives such as these are significant for a few reasons. Most obviously, they unequivocally guarantee the right to abortion by enshrining protections in statutory law, meaning that even if the courts fail to uphold the decision in Roe, citizens in states like New York would still have abortion access. Additionally, public support for these laws could work to remove the stigma surrounding abortion and frame it as healthcare, rather than continuing to criminalize abortion providers and their patients.
Furthermore, there’s an increasing chance that states will feel encouraged to follow suit by passing similar legislative measures, as demonstrated this year. Though not always rooted in evidence-based practice, states have the ability to set an example for other lawmakers and lead the way for further innovation. We’ve seen instances of how legislation can catch on like wildfire at the state level, for better or worse. Fetal heartbeat bans and many other types of state abortion restrictions are proposed as a result of “model legislation” pushed out by special interest groups in a nationwide strategy. With abortion rights perceived to be under threat at the federal level, some advocates are taking a page out of their opponents’ playbook by enacting proactive state laws.
As these battles unfold in state legislatures, it’s important to remember who will be most affected. Lawmakers in Illinois claimed to be “building a firewall around Illinois to protect access to reproductive healthcare for everyone.” While privileged women with the means to travel across state lines will continue to have access to the services they need, historically it was black and brown bodies who had their autonomy stripped away by oppressive political and social institutions. Today, women of color still seek abortions at a much higher rate than white women do, attributed to the lack of affordable healthcare and other manifestations of institutionalized racism. When 75 percent of women seeking abortion are low-income, barriers to safe abortion care hit hardest among those lacking resources.
So while state-by-state initiatives are a crucial tool that finally seems to be paying off in the fight for reproductive justice, the larger challenge ahead is ensuring that access to healthcare is no longer dependent upon a person’s income level or zip code.
Adrienne R. Ghorashi is a Program Manager at the Policy Surveillance Program at the Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research.
For more data on state abortion regulations, please visit the Abortion Law Project. The Abortion Law Project was created through a collaboration between the Policy Surveillance Program at Temple University’s Center for Public Health Law Research, Guttmacher Institute, Resources for Abortion Delivery (RAD), American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Reproductive Rights, National Abortion Federation, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America.