The left finally bites back: Why pro-choice trolling might just save us all

Anti-choicers have been cruelly effective and victorious in statehouses and the courts. There are lessons to learn

Published July 31, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

  (AP/Ron Edmonds)
(AP/Ron Edmonds)

In a really good but really depressing piece from earlier this month on the right's vendetta against reproductive healthcare, Vox's Sarah Kliff wrote that "the pro-life movement is winning." It's pretty hard to disagree.

The dust has barely settled on two Supreme Court decisions striking down clinic buffer zone laws and allowing employers to deny women access to healthcare, but the impact is already being felt. And as Kliff points out, the losses are hardly limited to the courts. After a wave of Republicans victories in the 2010 midterms, more state-level abortion restrictions were enacted between 2011 and 2013 than in the entire decade before. Throw in state refusals to adopt the Medicaid expansion and continued cost and geographical barriers to access women face, and you're looking at one small sliver of the right's "war on women."

The bad news seems to come easy lately, but it's not all bad news. While the reproductive justice movement and community activists across the country have long been ahead of the game when it comes to anticipating and challenging efforts to undermine women's fundamental rights, politicians on the left finally seem ready to back them up. And the rest of the country is paying attention, with emergency contraception and the copper IUD getting name dropped on the local news. Voter demographics are also shifting, possibly toward something better when it comes to reproductive healthcare.

Things are terrible right now, sure. But they are also, you know, not terrible.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday signed a measure in direct response to the buffer zones decision. The new law will work around the high court's blanket ban on the state's 35-foot buffer zones by essentially creating a penalty box for rowdy protesters. Police can disperse people impeding access to the clinic to a spot 25 feet away, where they will have to remain for eight hours. (It's like a time-out for grown-ups who carry tiny plastic fetus dolls around in their backpacks.)

Antiabortion groups have vowed to challenge it, probably because the law seemed designed to troll them. The Massachusetts Legislature basically took a page from the antiabortion right's own playbook: Throw a bunch of laws at the wall, see what sticks. If this gets overturned, try something else. The new law is proactive, and a clear signal to women and other people in Massachusetts who want to access healthcare without harassment that their representatives are paying attention.

Lawmakers in New York have also introduced equally strong measures to address workers' access to birth control. In a direct jab at Hobby Lobby, one of the measures was simply dubbed the "Boss bill." And congressional Democrats recently threw their weight behind a pithily named, well-intentioned (but predictably doomed) measure they called the Not My Bosses' Business Act. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Tammy Baldwin also have the Women's Health Protection Act, which limits the power states have to restrict access to abortion for arbitrary and punitive reasons and was debated before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. In California, lawmakers actually succeeded in expanding abortion access by passing a law empowering nurses and midwives to perform abortions.

In the courts, a Republican-led effort to shutter Mississippi's last remaining clinic failed this week after the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the admitting privileges law unconstitutional. According to the court's logic, making every single person who needs abortion care travel out of state to access it is, apparently, an undue burden. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg's blistering Hobby Lobby dissent brilliantly trolled her conservative male colleagues. The strength of her opposition matters. The same could be said for Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissent in the Wheaton College injunction, which directly called out the male justices for contradicting themselves on the contraception accommodation and undermining "confidence in this institution."

Now of course many of the bills introduced to combat the assault on reproductive healthcare have failed, and many will probably continue to fail for some time. But as Imani Gandy at RH Reality Check pointed out in her thorough breakdown of how Texas' sweeping abortion law actually came to be -- playing the long game pays off. In fact, the volume of failed proposals leading up to the success of HB2 was so high that tracking them required a dedicated database.

And as Oklahoma Rep. Doug Cox, a Republican who supports abortion rights, recently told Salon, his colleagues are borderline obsessed when it comes to trying to restrict abortion access. "We’ve spent a fortune in Oklahoma on these antiabortion laws," he explained. "We’ve had many overturned in the courts, but then we tweak them a little bit, make another run at it and watch as they get overturned again." These politicians are not playing around. Lawmakers hoping to match the courage of their constituents in fighting for access need to start getting, well, obsessive.

One of the scary but strangely impressive things about the right is just how experimental and dedicated they are in their efforts to restrict reproductive healthcare. They've broadened from just trying to overturn Roe v. Wade to trying to legislate access into nonexistence through mountains of red tape and cynical claims about "women's health." They've pressured hospitals to deny doctors admitting privileges. They've basically turned themselves into cartoon villains in service of their agenda. If it wasn't so terrible and if the consequences weren't so devastating, you'd almost have to give them credit for being so damn savvy.

Lawmakers who want to protect access to reproductive healthcare would do well to take notice.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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