Women's Reproductive Liberty: A Football in a Match Played By and For Men

Pro-life advocates in Congress recently infected an uncontroversial anti-human trafficking bill that had strong bipartisan support with a contentious amendment that prohibits taypayer-funded abortions. Women's reproductive health should not be the euphemistic football in a match played mostly by and for men in Congress.
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Pro-life advocates in Congress recently infected an uncontroversial anti-human trafficking bill that had strong bipartisan support with a contentious amendment that prohibits taypayer-funded abortions. Political pundits argue that Democrats should back down, as the Hyde Amendment has been attached to most if not all appropriations bills and is nothing new. However, this amendment fails to understand the core problems with human trafficking and would significantly impede efforts to protect victimized girls and women from the severe harms of human trafficking.

Why challenge the anti-abortion language? For one thing, the Hyde Amendment relates to taxpayer dollars -- not private funds. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act specifically collects funds from human traffickers, not taxpayers, to offer relief to trafficked victims. With the insertion of reproductive restrictions into the bill, victims who have been subjected to the worst sexual violence imaginable would be denied funded abortions. The result is to resign trafficked women to unintended and unwanted pregnancies and childbirth from men who defiled and brutalized them -- yet another form of abuse. True, if girls forced into prostitution could afford to pay for an abortion on their own, this would be an option. But by the very nature of human trafficking, these girls and women are poor, lack health insurance, are vulnerable, and have come to distrust government because they are often targeted as criminals rather than victims.

Republicans claim that so long as trafficked women can prove they were raped, funding will be available for them. That's doubtful. According to a 2012 study published by the Health Research and Education Trust, over half of pregnancies due to rape or incest (or that would threaten the girl or woman's health) were not reimbursed by Medicaid. It turns out the government does not pay its bills nor keep its promise to victims of rape and incest. In fact, only 36 percent of girls and women who "qualify" actually have their eligible abortions funded by Medicaid -- and states mostly foot that bill. The study's authors confirm "[p]oor state-level implementation of Medicaid coverage of abortion policies creates barriers for women seeking abortion." Doctors who are reimbursed experience a paperwork nightmare, so much so that it may not be worth providing care to the victims who need their services.

Thus, even with the so-called exceptions carved out for victims of rape and incest or to save the life of the mother, a woman's chance of actually receiving the qualified abortion is very slim. It's no surprise then that 25 percent of women who actually qualify under the exception "are forced to carry pregnancies to term." Still others delay pregnancy termination due to poverty when it could have been done earlier with a more simple procedure.

There are other reasons to be concerned about the crafty way in which anti-abortion language has been attached to this bill and many others. In recent years, lawmakers across the country and in Congress have pushed a robust anti-abortion agenda, making erroneous claims, including that abortions are unsafe and threaten the physical and emotional health of pregnant women. This is unscientific and profoundly inaccurate.

A recent study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women were 14 times more likely to die during or after giving birth to a live baby than to die from complications related to an abortion. In their study, Drs. Elizabeth Raymond and David Grimes examined medical records between 1998 and 2005. During that period 1 in 11,000 women died during childbirth, compared to 1 in 167,000 women who died from a legal abortion. Their study found, "legal induced abortion is markedly safer than childbirth." Sadly, medical evidence is downplayed or overlooked in an era of political profiteering on anti-abortion platforms.

Those most hurt by political maneuvering on abortion happen to be poor women generally, and in this case, trafficked, sexually-abused women. Wealthier, educated women have reproductive health options, unlike their poorer counterparts. For wealthy women in states like Mississippi where there is only one abortion clinic, they simply cross the state line. In contrast, poor women are symbolically and medically trapped where extended wait periods, targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP laws), and now vaginal ultrasounds subject them to ruthless burdens on a well-established constitutional right.

And there is reason for concern, particularly in light of federal and state legislation to end or severely burden access to abortions. For example, in Iowa, poor women's abortions under Medicaid must be approved by the governor even in cases of rape, incest, and endangerment to the mother's life. Wisconsin requires women to undergo vaginal ultrasounds prior to pregnancy termination and permits doctors to order the involuntary civil commitment of pregnant girls and women to "protect" their fetuses. Alicia Beltran recently spent more than 70 days in incarceration under that state law. In Michigan, no insurance plan in the state is permitted to cover abortions, including in cases of rape or incest.

Lawmakers forget a not so long ago era where women's reproductive health options were so constrained that they risked their lives with back-alley abortions performed by friends, untrained health professionals, or self-induced with coat-hangers. Indeed, prior to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Roe v. Wade, at least 200,000 back-alley abortions took place each year. In New York, half of the maternal mortality rate was attributable to illegal abortions. The consequences were dreadful: hemorrhaging, punctured or perforated organs, infections, sterility, infertility, and too frequently death.

Roe v. Wade was as much about public health and human rights as women's liberation. Children lost their mothers; parents their daughters, and husbands suffered the deaths of their wives. The painful consequences of criminalizing abortions touched most families' lives. However, conservative legislators and their constituents fail to remember and account for these past horrors: a time when men were safe and women were not; when men had access to contraception and women did not.

Women's reproductive health should not be the euphemistic football in a match played mostly by and for men in Congress.

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