Victory at the Supreme Court!
by Jenny Blasdell, Vice President, Public Policy & Strategic Partnerships
On June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court issued a decisive ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The 5-3 decision affirmed the right to safe and legal abortion by rejecting Texas’ medically unjustified restrictions that forced clinics to close and limited abortion access throughout the state. Physicians for Reproductive Health has been monitoring this case for years, speaking out against the Texas restrictions, submitting an amicus brief detailing the compassion and commitment of abortion providers, and participating in rallies at the Supreme Court.
The journey to the Supreme Court began in 2013, when Texas passed House Bill (H.B.) 2, a bill with several restrictions on abortion including Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) provisions that required clinics to become mini-hospitals, as well as a requirement that all physicians providing abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The court ruled that neither of these provisions were based in medicine or science, and neither made abortion, an already very safe procedure, any safer. The purpose behind these laws was to close clinics and limit access to abortion for women in Texas. And close clinics they did. Before H.B. 2, more than 40 clinics provided abortion care in Texas. As of last fall, only 19 remained. Had the Supreme Court not permanently blocked these provisions, only 9 or 10 clinics would have been able to remain open.
Whole Woman’s Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights sued to stop the law. Initially, the District Court ruled the laws were unconstitutional, but then H.B. 2 was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which had delayed the laws from going into full effect pending the outcome of the case.
To reach their decision rejecting the key provisions, the high court examined the evidence and recognized there was no credible basis for passing these laws, while noting the immense burdens the laws imposed on women. In his majority decision, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote “neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes. Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a pre-viability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access, and each violates the federal constitution.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added in her concurrence “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like H.B. 2 that do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion, cannot survive judicial inspection.”
The effects of the decision were felt immediately, as the Supreme Court declined to review admitting privileges requirements cases from Wisconsin and Mississippi, and Alabama announced it was abandoning its case to enforce admitting privileges requirements. Stephanie Toti, Senior Counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, noted “women’s reproductive rights have never been stronger in this country.”
While we could not be happier with this decision, it will take time to reopen the clinics in Texas that were forced to close, and improve abortion access in other underserved parts of the country. As Physicians for Reproductive Health Board Chair Dr. Willie Parker noted, “The battle to protect abortion access is not over. We will continue to fight to ensure that our physicians can fulfill their deep, conscientious commitment to providing all women who need it – in Texas and across the country – with dignified, compassionate, and appropriate reproductive health care.”
Report from the Supreme Court – an Eyewitness
by Jeryl D. Hayes, JD, LL.M, Assistant Director, Public Policy
I was standing on the steps of the Supreme Court surrounded by friends and colleagues in the reproductive freedom movement when we received news that the decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt – one of the most significant abortion cases since Roe v. Wade – was decided in our favor. As a feminist and legal professional, this was one of the most powerful experiences of my career.
During my three years in law school and a subsequent year earning my master’s with a specialization in gender and the law, I have spent many hours reading cases about abortion and contraception, and the seemingly endless battle for women’s ability to assert their autonomy over their own bodies. And here I was now at the Supreme Court celebrating one of the most important abortion-related legal victories in decades.
There was magic in the air as we gathered in front of the most iconic symbol of our legal system. Through the sea of signs proclaiming our right to our bodies and our collective identity supporting abortion access, we chanted and cheered and danced to a soundtrack of empowering songs. We listened to speeches from women who were unashamed about their abortions; from the heads of organizations working every day to ensure access to the full range of reproductive health care; and from providers sharing their commitment to treating patients with dignity and professionalism.
We were older women, fighting for access to safe and legal procedures knowing what the alternative looked like, and we were younger women, born well after the Roe decision, working against a return to a time before the availability of safe and legal abortion care. Together we spanned the generations, and together we affirmed in a united voice that we were there because everyone deserves reproductive freedom.
And then word came that the decision was in our favor. We celebrated when we learned that the Court overturned the most egregious Texas restrictions. And we celebrated even more when we saw they wrote the opinion in a way that echoed the stance our side has been seeking for years: states cannot pass sham laws whose only purpose is to erect barriers for women seeking to exercise their constitutional right to abortion.
Any law designed with the intent to “protect women’s health and safety” now has to prove it is truly protecting women’s health and safety. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, hugged and cried for this hard fought victory, knowing there is still so much work to be done.
As I smiled for a photo in front of the Court, I looked across the street at the Capitol Building, where Congress was still in session. I thought about a similar moment a year earlier when many of these same activists and I stood with our champions in the House of Representatives. We were there to announce the introduction of the EACH Woman Act, a bill aimed at overturning the Hyde Amendment to restore public insurance coverage for abortion. We knew the courage it took for those legislators to proclaim that not only should a woman have access to an abortion when she wants, but also that her insurance coverage should not determine whether or not she can obtain one. We knew this fight would not be won quickly, and we know it will take time to bring more members of Congress on board. We are moving in the right direction: in the year since the EACH Woman Act was introduced, over 120 Representatives have signed on to this bill, far exceeding our initial expectations.
We still have a lot of work to do. We also know that the recent momentous Supreme Court victory will motivate our opponents to find new ways to attack access to abortion, just as they did after the Roe v. Wade decision. We still have to convince members of Congress that legislation like the EACH Woman Act and the Women’s Health Protection Act are important and necessary to protect access to safe and legal abortion care. We still have to work to shift the public narrative and reduce the stigma of abortion. But every day that I go to work on these issues in coalitions with my peers and colleagues, I am thankful that I get to use my legal training to passionately advocate for access to the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion.
Physicians for Reproductive Health Announces Dr. Willie Parker as New Board Chair
In June, Physicians for Reproductive Health welcomed a new Board Chair – Dr. Willie Parker, a nationally renowned spokesperson and advocate for women and reproductive justice. Dr. Parker, an obstetrician-gynecologist with more than two decades of experience, has become a widely recognized and respected advocate for his work providing abortion care throughout the South, where access to these essential services is extremely limited. He was featured in the documentary Trapped, which addresses Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws and their impact on access to abortion in Southern states. A prolific author and speaker, Dr. Parker has recently been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and Ebony, among many other widely distributed publications.
A longtime Physicians member, Dr. Parker began his advocacy work in 2008 as a fellow with Physicians’ Leadership Training Academy, a program that prepares physicians across the country to become lifelong leaders in reproductive health advocacy. He is the first Academy Fellow to become Physicians’ board chair. Dr. Parker will strengthen Physicians’ leadership in ensuring access to reproductive health care on behalf of doctors, women, advocates, and concerned supporters.
“I am truly honored for the opportunity to lead this group of physicians who share a profound commitment to providing women with dignified, compassionate, and medically appropriate reproductive health care,” says Dr. Parker. “Although the Supreme Court’s recent ruling overturning restrictive abortion laws in Texas was a major victory, it was just one small step toward protecting abortion access across the country. I look forward to working with Physicians for Reproductive Health to continue to fight for change, reduce barriers and stigma, and expand access to reproductive health care.”
As board chair, Dr. Parker will continue the work of immediate past chair Dr. Nancy Stanwood to expand Physicians’ presence in the media and further strengthen Physicians’ advocacy and education programs. In addition, as a major focus of his work, he will serve as a national spokesperson for Physicians, looking to reach and engage new audiences.
“Dr. Parker has established himself as a national leader in reproductive health and a passionate advocate for abortion rights,” said Jodi Magee, president of Physicians. “We are so proud to have Dr. Parker as our new chair, and excited for the progress Physicians will continue to make under his leadership. The expertise of abortion providers is desperately needed in the ongoing public debate around reproductive health care, and Dr. Parker’s leadership will play a pivotal role in the fight to increase women’s access to their legal right to reproductive health care.”
This Evening was all about Courage
Physicians for Reproductive Health held its annual event, the Voices of Courage Benefit, on June 7 at the New-York Historical Society in honor of abortion providers from across the country. Formerly known as the William K. Rashbaum, MD and George Tiller, MD Abortion Provider Awards, this year’s event honored Dr. David Grimes and Dr. Colleen McNicholas for their outstanding courage in providing reproductive health that includes abortion care. The evening also featured comedian John Oliver, and actress Olivia Wilde as emcee.
This year’s benefit would not have been possible without the extraordinary effort of the 2016 Voices of Courage Benefit Committee. Led by Chair Dr. Caitlin Fiss, the Committee was instrumental in bringing together hundreds of supporters who literally filled the grand Historical Society to the brim while raising upwards of $400,000 for Physicians for Reproductive Health. Also helping reach this goal was a paddle raise, and a raffle organized by Student Benefit Chair Hannah Labow.
Since 2006, Physicians for Reproductive Health has hosted an annual awards ceremony to honor extraordinary physicians who have gone beyond the call of duty to increase access to abortion. This year’s event was transformed into a gala benefit celebrating all voices of courage – physicians as well as the important advocates who support them. Two awards are given each year: the William K. Rashbaum, MD, Abortion Provider Award, honors a physician who provides outstanding abortion services and serves as an inspirational leader; and the George Tiller, MD, Abortion Provider Award, which recognizes a physician early in his or her career who provides abortions while demonstrating courage in the face of adversity.
Dr. David Grimes received the William K. Rashbaum, MD award for lifetime achievement. A provider, researcher, author, teacher, and advocate, Dr. Grimes’s career began in 1972 – just prior to the Roe v. Wade decision. Dr. Grimes spent many years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helping chronicle the public health benefits of legal abortion, and in recent years has led international research on abortion and contraception for a World Health Organization Task Force. He has been a clinical professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine since 1998 and a fellow at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research University of North Carolina since 2000, where he trains medical students and residents in abortion. Dr. Grimes recently published a book, Every Third Woman in America, documenting the impact of safe and legal abortion in America. As Dr. Grimes said in his remarks: “The question that really faces us today as a society is not whether women will be having abortions, but rather what they will be paying for their abortions in terms of dollars, disease, degradation, and for some, death.”
Dr. Colleen McNicholas was honored with the George Tiller, MD award for outstanding courage in a hostile environment. A tireless advocate for reproductive access, Dr. McNicholas provides abortion care at Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. She also travels to Kansas to provide abortion services in Wichita, where Dr. Tiller worked for decades. She teaches at Washington University, serves on committees of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists at the state and national levels, and travels frequently to Washington, DC, and Jefferson City to raise awareness about abortion restrictions. As a student she started a Medical Students for Choice chapter and helped found the Gateway Women’s Access Fund to assist her patients dealing with the state’s arduous waiting period requirements. She was recently featured in the June issue of Marie Claire magazine. As she said in her remarks: “Every time we share our passion, commitment, and resolve to ensuring reproductive, social, and economic justice, be it with a colleague, a friend, family members, a mentee, or even a stranger, we’re making a difference and carrying the message forward in ways that we can’t even quantify.”
Like so many of their colleagues across the country, Drs. Grimes and McNicholas have shown great courage and resilience in the face of increased threats to abortion providers. One of these courageous colleagues is Dr. Diane Horvath-Cosper, who recently made news when she filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services. The complaint asks the Office for Civil Rights to investigate MedStar Washington Hospital’s discriminatory practice of prohibiting its employees from speaking publicly about abortion, which she did after anti-choice zealots posted pictures of her and her one year old daughter online in an attempt to intimidate her.
At the Benefit, Dr. Horvath-Cosper introduced a new Physicians program, the Partnership for Physician Safety, intended to help providers like her in just this kind of situation, by providing legal, logistical and emotional support during a critical time. Thanks to professional auctioneer Fred Northup and a hugely generous crowd, the Partnership raised over $188,000 for programs aimed at keeping abortion providers and their families safe at work, in their homes, and in their communities.
As benefit host Olivia Wilde said in her remarks: “It is an honor to be part of an event that raises awareness of those who work daily to ensure women can access the reproductive care they need. The stakes have never been higher for women, and in the year 2016, women shouldn’t have to overcome so many hurdles just to access reproductive care. I commend the work of physicians who make it their life’s work to guarantee reproductive health care access to all women who need it across our nation.”
Proceeds from the benefit will support Physicians’ programs and Physicians members in the ongoing fight for reproductive rights. These programs include the Partnership for Physician Safety and the Leadership Training Academy, a program that prepares physicians to become lifelong leaders in reproductive health advocacy. These initiatives foster a community of physicians who will work throughout their careers to protect and advance comprehensive reproductive and sexual health care.