Home / Capitol Insiders / Birth-Controlled: Pro-life activists push for greater restrictions on abortion, contraception

Birth-Controlled: Pro-life activists push for greater restrictions on abortion, contraception

Pro-life advocates are taking advantage of Republicans’ unparalleled dominance at the state Capitol, pushing for their most ambitious agenda yet in their fight to restrict abortion and birth control.

If enacted, the slew of bills would give pro-life advocates their biggest gains in years.

But the controversial measures also mean Republicans are wading deeper into a cultural war that is raging as Election Day approaches.

Arizona, in fact, has widened its trenches in the warfront of the never-ceasing struggle to define morality, sexuality and religious life in 21st Century America.

* * *

The rhetoric has sharpened in the past few days as the two sides sought to define the other’s agenda.

On March 21, a group of Democrats delivered their most pointed criticisms yet against a proposal to allow employers with religious objections to deny contraception coverage for their workers, although employees could insist on getting it under a narrow exemption.

“How ironic that the party that says it wants less government and less intrusion into people’s lives has decided that intruding into women’s personal, medical, economic and relationship issues is justified by their fundamentalist, Taliban-like religious beliefs,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, a Tucson Democrat.

Pro-life activists shot back.

“I represent many, many women who are deeply concerned about a culture that devalues life, and devalues the life of the woman who is considering an abortion,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, an influential Evangelical Christian lobby that is advocating for the contraception bill and other anti-abortion measures.

“To act like this is a war on women, or somehow this is anti-women, is highly offensive to all pro-life women who support these issues,”

Herrod said.

House Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, who introduced the contraception legislation, insisted that the bill’s goal is to protect employers’

religious beliefs by repealing the government mandate that they provide birth control even if doing so goes against their faith.

“That’s what this bill is all about. It’s protecting our First Amendment right to freedom of religion,” Lesko said. “I am a woman. I would never do anything to hurt women’s rights. That is not what my bill does.”

The measure, which drew some criticism from U.S. Sen. John McCain and a cool reaction from Gov. Jan Brewer, best illustrates the struggle to define the role of religion in the public arena.

What is at display is a clash of values — or to be more precise, a clash over the definition of those values.

It pits vanguards of Judeo-Christian morals, who feel that their beliefs are under a sustained attack from ‘activist’ courts and secularists, against women’s rights advocates, who believe the other side is imposing, with the government as enforcer, its religious tenets on them.

Contraception is only the most recent reincarnation of the political- religious pendulum that has been swinging from one side to the other.

It is once again part of the national conversation, and Arizona helped to start it.

* * *

Of the anti-abortion legislation that advanced in recent years, none is as sweeping as this session’s proposal to require physicians to first determine a fetus’ gestation age and to make it illegal to perform an abortion if the fetus is at least 20 weeks old.

The proposal brings pro-life advocates closer to their goal of blunting Roe v. Wade without directly confronting the decades-old U.S.

Supreme Court ruling that gave women the right to an abortion.

“That’s the biggest step forward (we’ve made),” said Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference.

Sen. Nancy Barto, a Phoenix Republican and key ally of the pro-life movement, said she would like abortion to ultimately go away.

“Personally, I would like to see abortion not be available, but, you know, the hearts of Americans are not there yet,” she told the Arizona Capitol Times. “I think having the best policies in place will help us move in that direction.”

Behind this legislation, which other states have already adopted, is the argument that the risk of abortion complications increases later in pregnancy and the disputed claim that a 20-week-old unborn fetus feels pain.

But the measure also pushes to the limit the pro-life movement’s strategy — highly effective in the past — of continuously chipping away at women’s ability to get an abortion rather than ban abortion altogether, which would surely be litigated.

Over the years, pro-life activists have persuaded lawmakers to ban late-term abortion, redefine the procedure to include the taking of pills to terminate a pregnancy, and just recently, require an ultrasound before an abortion.

This year, in fact, another proposal hews closer to this strategy: It seeks to protect physicians from liability claims for “wrongful birth”

and “wrongful life.”

These are claims against doctors who fail to diagnose or inform a mother that a fetus suffers from a genetic difficulty or other risks.

Those failures could mean that parents didn’t receive all the information they needed to decide whether to have the baby.

* * *

Yet even as they try to restrict abortion, pro-life activists have also ramped up their offensive against their No. 1 enemy — Planned Parenthood.

This year, they want to hit the group where it hurts the most.

They are pushing for legislation to prohibit the state from contracting with any entity that performs an abortion or runs a facility where abortions are performed.

It is an arrow that is directly aimed at Planned Parenthood, which offers other health services, such as gynecological exams, testing for sexually-transmitted diseases, breast cancer screenings and family planning.

Current law already bans public funds, including federal dollars, from paying for abortion services.

But that’s not enough for pro-life activists, who argued that the public is still indirectly subsidizing abortion by allowing public funds to go to Planned Parenthood, even if the money isn’t used for the procedure.

Planned Parenthood serves thousands of Medicaid patients each year.

It’s unclear how the federal government would react if the proposal became law.

Medicaid pulled its funding for a Texas program that helps low-income women get contraception, and breast and cervical cancer screenings after that state adopted a rule that forced Planned Parenthood out.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services argues that the Texas rule violates a Medicaid policy that says patients, not government, get to choose their health providers.

A spokesman for Planned Parenthood decried this year’s array of anti- abortion proposals as “dangerous” and out of step with mainstream Americans.

“Women don’t come to Planned Parenthood to make a political statement.

They come for health care. And they do not want their health care to be politicized,” said Cynde Cerf, who speaks for the group.

Theresa Ulmer, who lobbies for the group, also lambasted the legislation, saying it continues the attack on women, particularly those who are poor, and their ability to make health care choices.

Ulmer said Planned Parenthood’s funds are segregated and no government dollars go to finance abortions.

“The shell game of saying that it’s indirectly supporting abortion by allowing Planned Parenthood to provide preventive health care services to the public is disingenuous. It’s not happening. It’s never happened. It never will,” she recently told members of a Senate panel, unsuccessfully persuading them to defeat the measure.

This isn’t the first time that conservatives have targeted the organization.

Last year, they also passed a law prohibiting nonprofit groups that qualify to receive a “working poor” tax credit from providing or referring abortion services.

But a federal court blocked its implementation.

* * *

The pro-life movement clearly has the upper hand at the state Capitol, where many lawmakers share their beliefs.

While it is likely the pro-life proposals will succeed again this year, their proponents aren’t winning, for now at least, the battle for public perception.

Pro-life activists have been on the defensive in the past few days as critics lambasted the contraception bill as legislation that would force women to disclose private medical information to their bosses.

That’s a “distortion” of what the bill says, defenders said, arguing that the information would be disclosed to the insurance company — not employers.

But even if that’s clarified, it’s unlikely to mollify critics, who view the bill as an intrusion into women’s private lives.

Under the bill, an employer may object to contraception coverage on religious grounds.

And if an employee insists on getting the coverage, she must show that it’s for medical reasons other than to prevent pregnancy.

“Requiring women to document as much still requires women to tell insurers information about their private activity that women do not have to share currently,” said Anjali Abraham of the local American Civil Liberties Union. “As this is not an existing requirement, the change in law would represent a new and affirmative invasion of privacy, even if there is some sort of wall that prevents employers from accessing the details.”

Already, some Republican consultants have privately acknowledged that the proposal, taken together with the other anti-abortion measures, risks alienating women voters.

And pro-life lawmakers have acknowledged they’re on the defensive.

Even U.S. Sen. John McCain waded into the issue this week, warning that the issue was a loser for fellow Republicans.

“I think we have to fix that,” McCain told David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about the idea that Republicans have started a “war on women.” “I think there is a perception out there because of the way this whole contraception issue played out. We need to get off of that issue, in my view.

“I think we ought to respect the right of women to make choices in their lives and make that clear — and get back onto what the American people really care about: jobs and the economy.”

But the blowback is unlikely to deter the movement from pushing ahead.

“It’s much easier to demonize than it is to understand (the bill),”said Sen. Steve Yarbrough, a Republican from Chandler and a strong ally of pro-life activists.

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