Reproductive rights

“Politicians, not doctors, are pushing these restrictions through sham laws”

On Wednesday, the Center for Reproductive Rights will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court in the most significant abortion rights case to be heard there in nearly 25 years. We spoke to CRR CEO Nancy Northup

Pro-choice and pro-life activists clash in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on January 22, 2015. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 2nd, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear the most important case on abortion since Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt will determine whether the state of Texas can shut down nearly all abortion care providers in the state. A team from the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), will be arguing in front of SCOTUS in favor of protecting a woman’s access to safe, legal abortion services.

As an attorney by trade, CRR CEO Nancy Northup says, “The attacks on women’s access to safe, legal abortion have escalated so much in recent years that it’s been clear for some time that the next major Supreme Court case was a question of not ‘if’ but ‘when.'” She spoke with Women In The World on the SCOTUS case and the significance of women’s reproductive rights.

Women In The World: Can you briefly tell me about the Center for Reproductive Rights and its involvement in Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt?

Nancy Northup: The Center for Reproductive Rights works to ensure that reproductive rights are protected in law as fundamental human rights by governments around the world. We work in the U.S., Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe on women’s access to essential obstetrics care, contraception and safe abortion and against human rights abuses such as forced sterilization and child marriage.

Here in the U.S., we’ve recently been fighting an avalanche of state-level restrictions imposed on access to abortion services. In the Supreme Court Case Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt, we represent Whole Woman’s Health and other abortion providers in Texas who sued the state to block onerous and unnecessary regulations from shutting down clinics and blocking women’s access to safe and legal abortion.

President of the Center for Reproductive Rights Nancy Northup. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the Center for Reproductive Rights)

President of the Center for Reproductive Rights Nancy Northup. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the Center for Reproductive Rights)

WITW: Your team will be arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2nd. What is the basis of the case?

NN: This case is about protecting a woman’s access to safe, legal abortion services. In 2013, Texas passed HB2, a sweeping measure that imposed numerous restrictions on access to abortion. This measure, which has already shuttered half the clinics in Texas and forced women to wait as long as 20 days to make an appointment for abortion services, would leave just 10 clinics open in the entire state if allowed to take full effect.

The fact is, politicians, not doctors, are pushing these restrictions through sham laws. Leading medical experts — including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — filed a brief with the Supreme Court making clear that these restrictions are medically unnecessary and do nothing to promote women’s health. Politicians simply cannot be allowed to deny women their constitutional right to decide whether to continue or end a pregnancy. And that’s exactly why we are confident that the Court will affirm its past rulings and send a strong message that politically-motivated attacks on women’s health care will not stand.

WITW: What is the significance of Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt

 NN: Whole Women’s Health is the most significant abortion rights case in the U.S. Supreme Court in nearly 25 years. Just consider what is at stake in Texas alone. Texas is the second largest state in the U.S. in land mass and population, and this law threatens to take the number of clinics down to just 10 clinics for 5.4 million women of reproductive age. But even today, there are only 19. If the Supreme Court were to uphold this sham law, a woman in El Paso would be forced to cross state lines or drive 500 miles — or 7.5 hours each way — to San Antonio to get abortion care in her home state. But what’s at stake isn’t just limited to Texas. There are similar clinic shutdown laws being challenged in states across the country right now, from Mississippi to Wisconsin to Louisiana. Should the court strike this law down, it would ensure that similar state laws across the country would also be blocked from going into effect.

WITW: What are the implications for the case of Justice Antonin Scalia having died, and the case being heard by only eight justices?

NN: The fundamental stakes of this case remain unchanged:  We need five votes to strike down HB2 and prevent the gutting of abortion care in Texas.  We remain confident that the facts of this case require this unconstitutional law to be struck under established Supreme Court precedent.

WITW: Why do you think so many women aren’t aware of TRAP laws?

NN: The average person probably isn’t aware of these restrictions because that’s exactly what the politicians who support these clinic shutdown laws want. These deceptive TRAP laws are pushed by politicians under the guise of making abortion medically safer for women — despite clear opposition from leading medical, nursing and hospital groups. They’ve passed these sham laws as a way to sneak around the Constitution, force abortion clinics to shut their doors and deny women their right to access safe and legal abortion care.

WITW: This is the most significant U.S. Supreme Court case on abortion since Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992. Can you compare the cases?

NN: The Court’s 1992 decision in e reaffirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade — a woman has the constitutional right to choose abortion before viability without undue interference from the government. This protected liberty, which guarantees every woman the ability to make personal decisions about family and childbearing, effectuates vital constitutional values, including dignity, autonomy, equality and bodily integrity.  The Casey decision made clear that laws related to abortion must be designed to inform and protect women’s reproductive health care decisions, not hinder or interfere with them.

For this reason, the Court explained that states cannot enact “unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion.” That’s exactly what Texas has done here. The challenged regulations are medically unjustified and will make it harder for many women, and impossible for some women, to obtain an abortion in Texas.

WITW: How have the attacks on women’s reproductive rights changed in the 13 years since you began leading CRR? 

NN: The laws have grown increasingly deceitful, with devastating impact. In recent years, anti-choice politicians have cynically claimed to be protecting women’s health when in fact they seek to eliminate abortion clinics by enacting regulations that are impossible to comply with. The result has been a harsh reality where women who live in states such as Mississippi, Texas, and others beset by these attacks on reproductive rights simply don’t have the same rights as women who live in New York and California.

We are creeping closer than ever to the dark days that preceded the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision 43 years ago, when women of means could travel to get safe care, and women without were left with few or no options.This is what is at stake in the Supreme Court’s review of the Texas clinic shutdown law. A decision striking down medically unjustified restrictions like we’ve seen in Texas is critical to stop these attacks on women’s access to safe and legal abortion care throughout the U.S.

WITW: How does your training as a former federal prosecutor inform your current role as an executive of a woman’s rights organization?

NN: I understand the enormous power of the government and the ways in which that power can be used for good or for ill. As a prosecutor, it was my sworn duty and privilege to wield that power justly. In leading the Center for Reproductive Rights, I still carry that with me as I continue to work every day to make the principle of justice under law a reality for all women.

WITW: How did you and your team develop the legal strategy for this case? 

NN: The attacks on women’s access to safe, legal abortion have escalated so much in recent years that it’s been clear for some time that the next major Supreme Court case was a question of not “if” but “when.” We thought through which cases might make it to the Court and what it would take to win. We knew that under Casey‘s standard we would have to establish that the law has the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion. So we set out to expose the supposed health justifications of HB2 as a pretext and to demonstrate the law’s devastating effects. As we thought through strategy and prepared for the case, we worked with leading Supreme Court practitioners and top lawyers, including pro-bono law firms like our co-counsel Morrison & Foerster.

WITW: What has been the biggest challenge during this case?

NN: There are always plenty of challenges with a case of this magnitude, but one of the biggest has been watching the compassionate women’s health providers we work with struggle with uncertainty over whether they will be able to keep their doors open. Twice now those clinics have been on the brink of shutting their doors, only to be spared by the Supreme Court’s decision to intervene and block the effect of HB2 while the case proceeds. These providers should be focused on offering safe, quality care to their patients — not whether or not arbitrary restrictions could shutter their doors and leave women with nowhere to turn.

WITW: What do people need to take away from this case?

NN: People need to understand that the Constitution and 40 years of Supreme Court precedent protects a women’s constitutional right to abortion. Politicians have been passing sham laws to limit access to safe, legal abortion services. The reality is these laws don’t end abortion. They just create barriers that make it harder for women to access services, forcing them to travel long distances for care, bear additional costs, carry an unintended pregnancy to term or even take matters into her own hands.

WITW: The Center for Reproductive Rights recently released the Draw the Line monologues with celebrities telling other women’s abortion stories. Why is storytelling such an important part of this movement?

NN: Historically the political rhetoric, harassment, and violence has made it hard for women to come forward to share their deeply personal experiences with abortion.

As the assault on reproductive rights continues, we’re seeing an increasingly enormous outpouring of women willing to talk about their own abortion stories in the face of that intimidation and stigma, because they’ve realized that the future of reproductive protections are at stake with this Supreme Court case. Whether it’s a partner in a law firm reading an article in the National Law Journal about the 113 women attorneys who’ve sent their experiences to the U.S. Supreme Court, or a college student watching Elizabeth Banks re-telling a powerful story of a domestic abuse survivor — people are starting to really hear and understand the impact these laws have on the women in their own lives.

One in three women in the U.S. will make the decision to end a pregnancy. Their personal decisions are protected by the Constitution and should be respected by their government.

WITW: How did CRR come up with the Draw the Line campaign?

NN: Over the years, we’ve met some high profile individuals who were looking for ways to participate, and so many have; from Jemima Kirke telling her own abortion story to Mark Ruffalo recounting his mother’s pre-Roe abortion. But not everyone has their own story. So we came up with the most recent video campaign, inspired by the Vagina Monologues, to ask those individuals to lend their powerful voices to elevate some of the stories that might not have been otherwise heard on their own.

We wanted to produce a campaign that addressed the shame and stigma around abortion, and inspire reproductive rights supporters to form a united front against attacks on abortion access.

This interview has been lightly edited.


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