Nothing dramatizes the stakes for women’s access to reproductive health care at the state level like this year’s struggle in South Dakota. There the state legislature defied Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s affirmation of every woman’s constitutional right to abortion, and 33 years of judicial precedent by implementing a ban on all abortions except those required to save a woman’s life. Pro-choice forces countered with a referendum to overturn the ban, hoping that a victory at the polls would deter future legislative challenges to Roe.
The strategy paid off when voters overturned the law by a wide margin. South Dakota serves as a stark reminder that, while the Supreme Court ultimately makes abortion law, state legislatures can and have set the agenda for battle both in the courts and on the streets. Pro-choice forces will have to engage in both arenas to prevail.
The list of state abortion laws is long and 99 percent restrictive. Forty-six states allow health-care providers to refuse to perform abortions; 43 states allow institutions to opt out entirely; 32 bar the use of state funds for abortion, except when a woman’s life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest; 12 have “partial-birth” abortion bans, two-thirds of which seem to violate clear Supreme Court precedent. And mandatory pre-abortion counseling and parental involvement laws are widespread.
These anti-choice laws — and many others — operate against a backdrop of shrinking numbers of abortion providers and growing swaths of the country where no access exists at all. Nationwide, 88 percent of all counties have no identifiable abortion provider, according to the National Abortion Federation. Outside metropolitan areas, that figure is 97 percent—requiring long, often expensive trips.
For some years now, the right wing has also targeted sex education, with a healthy assist from the federal government. Abstinence-only education is big bucks, garnering more than $1 billion in federal taxpayer dollars since 1998, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US.
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