The Politics Of Abortion Rights And Restrictions

States across the country are passing new abortion laws. But how are those laws implemented and what will they do? Host Michel Martin speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, and Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life, about the current state of the abortion debate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program - we've heard from one of the jurors and now, a key witness, in the trial of George Zimmerman; we'll hear what our panel of commentators in our "Beauty Shop" roundtable have to say about what they're hearing. But first, we want to talk about a national debate that's heating up once again, but this time in state legislatures around the country; and that is the debate over abortion. The Texas legislature this weekend became the latest state to pass a bill setting new restrictions, in most cases, on access to abortion, banning the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy - in most cases, as we said.

Although the fight in Texas got a lot of attention after a Democratic state lawmaker named Wendy Davis succeeded in delaying passage of the bill at first, the Texas measure is just one of a number of measures passed around the country that either restrict access to the procedure, or impose new requirements on abortion providers. We wanted to talk more about this, so we're joined now by Connie Schultz. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She's a regular guest on the program. We caught up with her at member station WCPN in Cleveland. Connie Schultz, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us.

CONNIE SCHULTZ: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Serrin Foster; she's the president of Feminists for Life. And she's with us once again in our studios in Washington, D.C. Serrin, welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

SERRIN FOSTER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I want to start talking about the Texas bill. As I said, it restricts abortion, in most cases, after 20 weeks. But it also requires doctors at abortion facilities to have admitting privileges at local hospitals; it requires facilities to meet certain standards, like having wide hallways and big recovery rooms - hospital-like features. Other states like Alabama, North Dakota, Arkansas, Montana, have put in similar restrictions - in place.

Serrin, the argument is that these measures are to protect women. But there was a tweet from the lieutenant governor of Texas, praising how many abortion clinics would be shut down as a consequence of the new rules there. It showed a map of Texas, with dots where new regulations would close abortion clinics - in red. "We fought to pass SB5 through the Senate last night, and this is why." If that's the goal, why not just say it? Why not just be upfront about it?

FOSTER: Well, I think he was. But for Feminists for Life, our goal is - really, to raise expectations and address the resources, or the lack of resources and support that drive women to abortion; and really get before a woman is at a point where she's looking at a late-term abortion. It happens 11,000 times a year, in this country, so it's not as uncommon as people think. It's 30 times a day. And I think the conversation has really shifted since we've seen neonatal pictures on, you know, "Oprah" and the cover of Life magazine and everything.

But I really would like for us to focus on the reasons why women have late-term abortions, or abortions at all - whether they're early, or in the second trimester or in the late trimester - because I think it is a tragedy, and it's a reflection that we have not met the needs of women; in particular, the lack of resources and support.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about where you think the debate is going, in a minute. But I want to bring in Connie Schultz - in first, so - you know, Connie Schultz, I want to mention again that your home state of Ohio has been in the news because the governor's new budget will make it very difficult for existing abortion clinics to stay open.

SCHULTZ: Yes.

MARTIN: Now, a lot of people who are criticizing Gov. Kasich and a lot of the other governors in these places, and the legislatures - saying that they've been sneaky and underhanded in the way that they have positioned these provisions.

SCHULTZ: Yes.

MARTIN: But the question I'd have for you is, if there wasn't a consensus around these issues, then how could they do it?

SCHULTZ: Well, for one thing, you've go - with the redistricting in this state, you've got a lot of far-right representatives now reflecting large swathes of the state. Not really representing - it's not an accurate representation of the state. But I want to draw your attention - and I know you saw that picture; I don't think there's anyone in the news who didn't, at the time. When Gov. Kasich signed that bill - which was, as you mentioned, slipped into the budget; there was no floor debate on that - and when he signed it, he was surrounded by men. And the imagery of that, I think, is remarkable, and it's lack of regard for women.

But you also have to look at some of the things that happened with this bill. Rape crisis centers now cannot even mention abortion as an option to a woman who has been raped, without losing their public funding, for example. Another thing that the Columbus Dispatch just reported this week - funding is now going to be - state funding will be going to a lot of these so-called pregnancy centers. They're anti-abortion, and many of them do not provide any counseling on birth control; no contraception counseling whatsoever.

These sort of practices harm women. If what you are trying to do is prevent unwanted pregnancies, there is no support - there is no research that supports you can accomplish that without also giving women information, accurate information; and giving them access to affordable contraception.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Connie Schultz and Serrin Foster about changes that are being debated - and in many cases, passed - around the country in states; regulating access to abortion, and regulating the way abortion providers can operate. But Connie, on this point, you're saying that - you talked about the optics of the picture with Gov. Kasich in Ohio, and we note that he called over the son of one of his aides, at one point, to sit on his lap as he signed the procedure.

But I wanted to ask each of you about this - a Gallup poll asked recently whether people would consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice. It found that the divide between pro-life and pro-choice really hasn't changed very much since the late...

SCHULTZ: Right.

MARTIN: ...1990s. And you talked about the fact that mainly - you see mainly men as legislators. But the fact is, aren't women divided on this? Aren't they as divided as the rest of the country is, and isn't that, in part, why...

SCHULTZ: ...Yes

MARTIN: ...it's not seen as a civil rights issue for women?

SCHULTZ: Well, I don't think that's why it's not seen as a civil rights issue. I mean, abortion is a - we have a fundamental right to privacy in this country; it is in the Constitution. And that is what we're trying to protect. And those - women should have the same constitutional rights, no matter which state they live in. And when we talk about Texas, I find this just a fascinating conversation about so-called life because it has just passed, I think, the 500th mark in executions, in the state of Texas. It executes more people than any other state in the country. So it's such a - to me, again, it's a lack of good-faith discussion. This is not an honest conversation. This is meant to impose a certain set of morals on the rest of the country.

MARTIN: Serrin, same question to you, though. Again, we see that public opinion on this question has really not changed very much. So to what do you attribute the uptick in these new regulations, if it isn't really about one side - a partisan side - seeking political advantage?

FOSTER: Well, I think you see, on both sides of the debate, people trying to change laws. So you - and expand abortion in New York, which is already the capital of abortion in this country; or California, which may be close behind. You see attempts to have non-doctors performing abortions on women. So there's - both sides are doing different things to try to take advantage of the margins. And I really think we've got to go back and say, what is holistically happening to women? Why are they having late-term abortions? What about the lack of support from the people they count on the most? What about perfect strangers in the community that they need to know about - from their churches and women's centers - who will support them no matter, even if their partner or husband leaves them; or support from the domestic violence shelters, etc.

So when you're looking at the reasons why women have late-term abortions, they are in very serious situations usually, and we need to address their needs. And I don't think that conversation is happening enough. There's a lot of concern about legal issues, and I understand that. And Feminists for Life is not involved with the legal part of this. We're really here as advocates for the resources and support that women don't have. The same things that Susan B. Anthony talked about years ago, when she was talking about abortion, she wasn't talking about it litigiously, she was talking about looking at the root causes that drive women to abortion. And I think the feminist and pro-life movements need to really focus much more on that.

MARTIN: But do these new regulations address that concern?

FOSTER: I'm not sure. I'm not sure that having non-doctors performing abortions...

SCHULTZ: Rare.

FOSTER: ...I don't think that's - in California - if you're following legislation there - there's legislation underway there, and other states, to propose that. And - or the restrictions of abortion, certainly I understand why pro-lifers are doing - and I understand why both sides are doing what they're doing. I'm just saying that if you listen to Guttmacher, who studies the reasons why women have abortions no matter what, you know, part of their pregnancy, they're all talking the lack of pregnancy - I mean, the lack of resources for it.

MARTIN: But the question I would ask is, why, then, isn't the activism centered on the kinds of things you're talking about? Because it's...

FOSTER: We do. And I think that's what's different about us - is really focusing on that.

MARTIN: Well, let me hear from Connie. Again, I have to ask the question about - there was a time when this was considered a civil rights issue for women.

SCHULTZ: Yes, right.

MARTIN: There are very few - I mean, there are some African-Americans, let's say, who don't support certain initiatives around expanding, sort of equal opportunity or voting rights, but they are a distinct minority among African-Americans, let's say.

SCHULTZ: Correct.

MARTIN: Among women, though, I mean, the question continues, why isn't this seen as a civil rights issue for women? You're saying that this is imposing a, say, a human rights cost to women, but wouldn't the numbers suggest that there is not an overwhelming consensus among women?

SCHULTZ: Well, it depends on what the question is being asked, because if you ask, do they think that abortion should be legal, safe and rare? Then you have a different answer. Do they think abortion should be legal and safe? Yes. When you start to get into the timeline - and let us not be cavalier about the small, small minority of women who have so-called late-term abortions. These are decisions made by women because of a number of circumstances, including things that are going on with that pregnancy. And to suggest that all of them are out there wandering, looking for support, is just not factually true. And I know this from my own experience of interviewing many of these women over the years.

The point here - again, the law matters. I don't understand how we can have the discussion, and separate it from the law and the Constitution. As I said - and I'll say it again - abortion is a woman's fundamental right to privacy, and that is a constitutional right. It's meant to be protected by the Constitution in every state in which they live. And I don't need to know the reason behind why a woman makes this decision with her doctor, with her partner or without her partner - whoever is in her life at the moment, I don't think the government should be intruding between the woman and the doctor. Name another medical procedure in this country where we are suggesting the government should get in that room with a patient and his or her doctor.

MARTIN: I think people might argue that organ transplants, for example - there is a tremendous involvement of outside parties in deciding who gets access to that procedure, those kinds of procedures, and not. So not to debate that point; we only have a couple of seconds left. I wanted to ask each of you, in the couple of seconds - literally - we have left, where do you think this debate goes from here? Connie, very briefly; and then Serrin, very briefly.

SCHULTZ: It'll continue to roil, and we're going to end up in the courts.

MARTIN: Serrin?

FOSTER: Absolutely, but we'd better start paying attention to the reasons why women have abortion. Lack of resources and support are the overwhelming - overarching reasons, according to Guttmacher; and we need to remember the women who died from abortion.

MARTIN: Serrin Foster is president of Feminists for Life. Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist. Thank you both so much for joining us.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.

FOSTER: Thank you.

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