Michigan, Virginia pass backdoor abortion restrictions

Governors in Michigan, Virginia sneak in a New Year surprise when no one was looking: Abortion restrictions

By Irin Carmon
Published January 2, 2013 10:44PM (EST)

On the Friday before the long  holiday weekend, the Republican governors of Michigan and Virginia snuck in a little New Year's surprise for the women of their states, quietly signing abortion legislation that helped make 2012 the second most restrictive year for reproductive rights.

In Michigan, Rick Snyder signed a bill passed by the lame-duck Senate -- the same one whose anti-union legislating dominated headlines in recent weeks -- requiring clinics that perform more than 120 abortions a year to become surgical outpatient facilities, a level of licensing intended to be onerous and put clinics out of business. He also approved a bill that purports to screen for women being coerced into abortions.

Snyder did veto another bill limiting insurance coverage in private employee plans, which would have required purchase of a separate abortion rider. He objected to that on the grounds that rape victims would have to pay out of pocket if they didn't buy the rider, and because, "As a practical matter, I believe this type of policy is an overreach of government into the private market." Overreach of government into other realms, of course, is another matter entirely. (According to Michigan resident Emily Magner, one legislator interrupted her to cry, "THIS ISN’T ABOUT WOMEN! THIS IS ABOUT PROTECTING FETUSES!”)

Virginia's similar, hospital-level restrictions on clinics were somewhat overshadowed by the ultrasound requirements for women seeking abortions. Under threat of forever having the word "transvaginal" attached to his name, Gov. Bob McDonnell tried to split the difference on the ultrasound legislation, but in the final days of the year signed off on the clinic regulations. This followed months of conflict between the Board of Health and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli over whether existing clinics would be grandfathered into the legislation. The governor's office called the regulations "common-sense"; NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia said in a statement,  “After two years of shocking backroom deals and bullying public health servants, Governor Bob McDonnell is clearly proving his disregard of Virginians’ opinions about women’s health care."

Clinic regulations are the most insidious of abortion restrictions, because they're harder for the layperson to understand and tend to incite less outrage as a result. And opposition to them tends to fall into antiabortion narratives about back-alley butchers resisting safety standards. But research has suggested that they also tend to be the most effective: It's difficult to talk a woman out of having an abortion, but if you make access near impossible, you might take the choice off the table altogether.

According to Guttmacher's year-end review, 2011 was the worst year for reproductive rights restrictions on the state level, with 2012 coming in second. Last year might have been worse, had it not been for the backlash, Guttmacher noted:  "Against the backdrop of a contentious presidential campaign in which abortion and even contraception were front-burner issues — to a degree unprecedented in recent memory — supporters of reproductive health and rights were able to block high-profile attacks on access to abortion in states as diverse as Alabama, Idaho, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Virginia." There's no reason to believe this year will be much better:  According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 21 states will have the trifecta needed for antiabortion legislation to sail through: House, Senate and governor opposed to abortion rights and access. The question is, without the urgency of a national election, will anyone be paying attention?

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

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