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The dangerous illusion of abortion rights

<p>A woman writes down abortion statistics on posterboard. PHOTO: LAUNCE RAKE</p>

A woman writes down abortion statistics on posterboard. PHOTO: LAUNCE RAKE

As a young, politically active woman in Chicago, Linda Turner knew women who had illegal abortions. It was a potentially dangerous choice — it carried the threat of imprisonment or harsh financial penalties for both abortion providers and their patients.

And of course, women often knew next to nothing about the person providing the procedure. Abortions were often conducted in unsafe conditions by people without medical experience, and as a result, thousands died.

Linda Turner is a petite firebrand at 71, a retired political activist who has lived in Las Vegas for years but worked in Chicago in the early 1970s. She remembers the days before the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to assure a woman’s right to abortion in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade.

In those days, Turner and others worked in Chicago to provide safe access to trained providers through an underground network called the Jane Collective, or just Jane.

“I was very political at the time,” Turner recalled. “We had a center for progressive work on Halsted Street. Different groups did all kinds of progressive good work — health providers, legal work, nutrition. The Women’s Liberation Movement was there.”

Activists in the women’s movement believed that providing safe access to abortion was a critical health issue, Turner said. She got involved, driving women to safe houses for the procedure and helping to raise money — in part, to cover the costs of defending the organization and providers from legal prosecution.

“It was really scary at that time,” Turner said. Jane, she recalled, “saved a lot of lives.”

She fears that the laws pushing abortion underground would return if the Supreme Court reverses itself and opens the door for criminalization of the procedure. Younger women don’t necessarily understand the risks or the vulnerabilities of the law giving access to abortion, Turner says.

“The older women — we know what it can be like,” she said. “We need to remember this always and say, ‘Never again.’”

Turner is not alone in her belief that access to abortion is under attack. A panel convened Jan. 31 by Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada concluded that although Americans have come to view access to reproductive medical services as solid in the four decades since Roe v. Wade, that is an illusion threatened throughout the country.

Former congresswoman Shelley Berkley joined a trio of academics to examine the past, present and uncertain future of abortion access. A passionate crowd of nearly 100 people — perhaps half of them born after the court ruling, most of them women and among them doctors and medical students — listened intently and shared their own stories.

The discussion served as a celebration of sorts for Planned Parenthood, which runs three clinics that provide a variety of health services for women and men in Southern Nevada, as well as a clear warning that states and localities are steadily undermining access to abortion across the country.

Berkley, who in November lost a close election against Sen. Dean Heller, said his vote last year to completely bar any federal funding for Planned Parenthood services is what prompted her to give up her safe congressional seat for the Senate bid. Planned Parenthood’s medical and family-planning services are sometimes supported by state and federal dollars, but federal funding for the organization’s abortion services is banned by law.

Berkley said women’s health generally is also threatened by attacks on the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — which provided access to medical insurance coverage for 12 million women.

Berkley said she takes threats to the ACA and Planned Parenthood personally. As a student at what would one day become UNLV, she depended on Planned Parenthood for basic preventative health services.

“I am one of thousands and thousands of women who have depended on Planning Parenthood for our health-care needs,” she said. “We have to continue what we’re doing. This is not for the faint of heart. … The anti-abortion advocates are not going to just lie down.”

Some of the biggest threats to abortion and medical services for women are coming on the state and local level, panelists said. A bill was recently introduced in New Mexico that would prevent the pregnant victims of rape from having abortions because it would be considered destruction of criminal evidence. Mississippi requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals — privileges that the hospitals will not grant. Some places require impossible-to-provide hallway clearances and other nuisance codes to shut down clinics. Virginia lawmakers proposed that women seeking abortion be forced to have a vaginal probe inserted for a “transvaginal ultrasound” image. More than 40 laws in 19 states have been proposed or passed to make access to abortion difficult or impossible.

UNLV Boyd School of Law Professor Leslie Griffin said there are a couple of reasons why the “right” to abortion has been so easily undermined. One is that while, in Roe v. Wade, the court ruled by a strong 7-2 majority for abortion access, the justices did not view the decision as a fundamental civil rights ruling. At the time, it was about the right of doctors to practice medicine without legal interference.

Today, Supreme Court decisions on abortion swing on a single vote — for or against, the decisions are 5-4, giving neither opponents nor advocates a clear advantage in the federal courts. “The abortion cases are hanging by a thread in the Supreme Court,” Griffin noted.

The fact that abortion is under attack on the state and local levels is a mirror image of how abortion and women’s health services were provided before Roe. Dr. Joanne Goodwin, director of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, said the effort to provide those services started on a state-by-state, city-by-city movement in the 1960s, a “women’s health-care movement within the women’s liberation movement.” The effort was largely underground at a time when most states formally banned abortion and access to reproductive health services, including contraception, even after the 1965 Supreme Court decision that made state laws barring contraception unconstitutional. At the time of the ruling, in Griswold v. Connecticut, more than 90 percent of Americans supported laws restricting or banning abortion. Just seven years later, a poll found that two-thirds of Americans viewed abortion as a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor, Goodwin said. Polls since then have consistently shown growth in the number of Americans accepting abortion, even if they personally wouldn’t choose it.

And, of course, it has been a long time since the 1973 Roe decision. That’s meant that some people, including many young women, view access to abortion and reproductive health services as inviolate — and that’s an illusion that is increasingly untenable.