If you care about reproductive rights in the United States, the current state of affairs can look bleak. With President Donald Trump's administration rolling back access to reproductive health care, and a potentially anti-abortion justice about to join the Supreme Court, there's a lot that's troubling. But despite this fact, there's still so much happening in the U.S. that's protecting reproductive and health care rights that you might not have even known about. And one recently published report in particular represents a beacon of hope for those concerned about reproductive rights.
On July 16, the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) published a mid-year report called "Gaining Ground" that details what state governments have been doing on a local level to protect reproductive rights. It outlines the way many states have either enacted or passed legislation that protect reproductive rights at some level — per the report, there have been 404 bills introduced in 44 states meant to protect reproductive health and rights in 2018 as of June 15, and 63 have been fully enacted.
The bills introduced or enacted cover a lot of ground on reproductive rights — while there are only enacted three bills expanding access to abortion care, there are a solid 19 expanding access to contraception, and 16 prohibiting discrimination. Many states are also working to expand health care coverage and access to pregnancy care, and protect incarcerated women's health care rights. During a time where it feels like there is no escaping the push against women's reproductive autonomy, what's being done in these states is incredibly important.
NIRH president Andrea Miller spoke to Elite Daily by phone about the report and highlighted important actions in conservative-leaning states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. For example, in April, Tennessee passed a law that forbade judges from offering individuals facing prison time shorter sentences if they agreed to sterilization or long term contraception. Miller says that laws like this one are hopefully a sign that politicians are beginning to understand that it's important to "leave these decisions in people's hands." She says,
This is a really important step forward for a state like Tennessee ... to not to have government create coercive policies that undermine those rights and that ability to access care freely.
States' actions are important with a president currently sitting in the Oval Office who has said he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would "automatically" reverse Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court case that federally legalized abortion in this country. If that happened, decisions on abortion access would be back in the hands of individual states, which could allow, restrict, or even ban it as they please. Considering that there are some states with "trigger laws," which would automatically ban abortion access in the event that Roe is overturned, it's hard to feel confident about the future of reproductive rights in the United States. But this report displays that there's some legislation happening that should make everyone hopeful — not fearful — for the future of reproductive health care in the United States.
Miller also discussed the importance of local elections, which have shifted the balance of power in states like New Jersey and Washington and brought in politicians who will support access to women's health care. She brings up the example of Virginia, which saw many pro-choice candidates win local elections in 2017. It's had major effects: Medicaid expansion was finally passed after six years of stalling, which now ensures health care coverage to lower-income Virginians. Miller explains,
There was a big shift in this last election cycle that allowed Virginia to be able to (after many many years of trying) to pass Medicaid expansion, which is not just an issue of access to reproductive health care for so many low income people, but access to health care as a large.
The timing of the report's release couldn't be better. On July 9, Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. Judge Kavanaugh's 12-year track record with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has appeared to tilt conservative on issues regarding reproductive rights — including an instance where he stood against an undocumented teenager accessing abortion care. With his nomination and possible confirmation to the Supreme Court bench, important cases like Roe v. Wade are at risk of getting completely overturned.
But there's still so much more work to be done. Miller discussed the fact that there are still many pre-Roe laws that effectively outlaw abortion that haven't been updated. Some of these pre-Roe laws can date back to the mid-1800s, according to Miller, and criminally ban abortions. "These laws either remained dormant after Roe v. Wade or were mostly ignored. Or in some instances states moved to revise and repeal them," she says.
But in some instances, like in New York state, these dormant laws further limit reproductive health care. According to Miller, women in New York who need late pregnancy terminations due to health risks have to travel out of state, thanks to a 1970 law that states that a woman cannot legally get an abortion in New York after the 24th week of a pregnancy unless her life is immediately at risk.
Miller offered some advice to anyone who wants to fight for continued protection of reproductive rights. She says that voting, calling your representatives, and talking to others about this issues is essential. "People absolutely have to vote," Miller says. She continues,
This election cycle matters tremendously. It matters not only for what's going to happen in Congress but it really matters at the state level. It's about making sure that you vote all up and down the ballot. ... Talk to your elected officials about this issue, make it clear that it matters to you. Let them know that you're going to expect them to do something about it.
Miller's final piece of advice is to just talk to people about these issues and keep the conversation going. "The more clear and explicit we are about these rights, the harder it is to roll them back," says Miller.
So if you care about keeping reproductive rights intact, don't give up and don't quit speaking up about what you want to see happen in government. Just because the future may seem unpromising for issues related to family planning doesn't mean that all hope is lost.