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Texas turns to Taliban model with its vigilante abortion ban

It is ironic that at the same time that Americans virtually across the board are bemoaning the loss of women’s rights in Afghanistan, religious zealots in Texas have banned abortions in that state after six weeks gestation, taking away the precious and personal right of women to control their own reproductive capacity. The Texas law provides no exceptions even in cases of rape, incest, or physical and psychological health problems.

Moreover, like the “freedom” given to Afghani Taliban soldiers to take religious infractions into their own hands, the Texas legislature has given free rein to vigilantes to invade women’s privacy, and to pursue anyone connected to an abortion through courts, fines, and humiliation.

It is outrageous, dangerous, and a wake-up call to a public that has assumed that legalized abortion was settled law.

If this Texas ban spreads to other states − and certainly there is political momentum for that to happen − what would abortion access look like in the Unoted States? Well, we went through that scenario while I was an OB-Gyn resident at Women’s Hospital at the University of Michigan in 1967-71, when abortion was illegal there.

Tens of thousands of Michiganders went by bus, train or plane to get legal abortions in other countries or in those few states in which abortion became legal before Roe v. Wade (Colorado, Georgia, New York). Most of these women were referred by the Michigan Clergy Counseling Service (CCS), which helped assure patients were getting good care. However, there were so many women travelling home after abortions that inevitably there were women who had hemorrhages or other complications en route. Major airports and transportation centers had to hire OB-Gyns to be on call to deal with these emergencies.

Few abortions were prevented by the draconian laws banning abortions in most states. Once women make the decision to terminate a pregnancy, they will almost always find a way to get it done, no matter how risky.

My experience? I was recruited by the Clergy Service as a volunteer. I checked abortion patients before they travelled, to be sure they were pregnant, were not too far along for a safe abortion, and knew what to expect. And after they came home, I checked them to assure they had safe and complete procedures. Of course that access was only for those young and middle-aged women who could afford the trip and cost of the procedure, which was not covered by insurance.

The poor had a different story.

To get the money needed, the indigent begged, borrowed or stole it. Or they prostituted themselves in desperation. Since trying to get enough funding takes time, the indigent women tended to have later, and thus more risky, abortions. If they could not muster the means to travel, or feared flying, they turned to back-alley procedures. I saw them and heard their incredible and scary stories when they came to the emergency room after botched, illegal or self-induced abortions. Many were extremely sick from hemorrhage, sepsis, and toxic remedies. Some died. It was quite an education for someone like me, raised on a farm in Salem, where there was always room for one more.

If the Texas-type bans spread to other states, some women will be seriously inconvenienced and may end up with some delays before the procedure. For the poor, however, the story will be one of even greater delays, higher risks, much greater emotional and financial distress, and more tragic deaths. The terrible oppression of the Texas ban will fall most squarely on those with the least ability to travel.

As the fight to protect legal abortions continues, the equal protection clause may well be more solid constitutional ground than the “right to privacy” as a basis for protecting legalized abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court may strike down the privacy basis for legalizing abortion. The intrusion on privacy that the Texas law encourages was ignored by the high court when it failed to restrain the Texas ban. The rich have always had access to legal abortions, but the poor are the ones being denied access by the Texas Taliban approach.  

In Connecticut, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged the denial of Medicaid coverage to women seeking abortions, and our state Supreme Court agreed, based on the clear evidence that equality under Connecticut law means that the indigent should have the same access to abortion care as those with means (I testified and found several plaintiffs in that case). Congress should make equal protection the national basis for legalization, if the court overturns the Roe v. Wade decision.

With the new national consciousness of inequality in our systems for health, education, the environment and justice, the adverse impact of the Texas ban on the poor and communities of color should help unite women and men of different backgrounds around this issue. The Texas law, which empowers vigilantes to intrude on privacy and to punish those breaking the law, is especially perverse. Any such “enforcement” activities will arouse even greater anger and activism nationally to protect current abortion rights.

My guess is that the Texas ban will awaken women across the nation to greater political involvement. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” I see this fury being played out in the ballot boxes. If so, we will see the first evidence of this impact in the mid-term congressional elections in 2022, when independent suburban women will carry the day, linked with their sisters and brothers in movements seeking equal justice under the law, and in health care, the environment, and education.

Until then my wife, Annie, and I will be spending time and treasure doing whatever we can to help keep a focus on women’s rights and the environment, “with liberty and justice for all.”

Retired from practice, Dr. David B. Bingham formerly served as as medical director for the Norwich Planned Parenthood clinic. In the late 1970s he helped found the Connecticut Chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League (now CT NARAL-Pro Choice America).

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