Women’s medical autonomy — particularly when it comes to reproductive rights — is suddenly front and center in national politics. The New York Times today reports on Democratic Party efforts to rally women voters by alerting them — as if it was a secret — to the Republican Party’s desire to take away their medical freedom, not only by making abortion virtually illegal but by making birth control unobtainable generally and particularly in the first minutes after potential conception.
The Republican Party — save for the tiny segment that still supports legal access to abortion (and there ARE such Republican women) — thinks, conversely, that this is a winner for THEM. In the echo chamber of Republican thought, it is inconceivable that women might have good and well-considered reason for abortion, particularly in the very earliest stages, or that birth control might be of medical value for reasons other than preventing pregnancy. Polls, even in Arkansas, still show a majority favors continuation of legal abortion, if with restrictions. Many who declare themselves “pro-life” nonetheless want to retain the legal option to terminate pregnancy.
There’s a most interesting local angle. One of the hottest state legislative races this year will pit Democratic Rep. Linda Tyler of Conway against Republican Sen. Jason Rapert, who’s moved away from Bigelow to make a run for Senate in a redrawn district. Tyler was chair of the House Public Health Committee when it turned back, by often narrow margins, radical anti-abortion legislation. Rapert was the sponsor of a radical anti-abortion bill that passed the Senate but died in her committee.
Rapert sponsored mandatory ultrasound legislation that could be interpreted to be every bit as punitive as the Virginia legislation that set off a recent firestorm and ultimately was amended before passage. The Virginia bill would have required — against a woman’s will — insertion of a wand into a woman’s vagina, the only means of detecting a fetal heartbeat in the very early stages of pregnancy. Here’s the original Virginia bill. And here’s Rapert’s bill. And here’s the key passage in Rapert’s:
20-16-1304. Testing for heartbeat.
(a) A person authorized to perform abortions under Arkansas law shall not perform an abortion on a pregnant woman before the person tests the pregnant woman to determine whether the fetus the pregnant woman is carrying possesses a detectible heartbeat.
(b) A person authorized to perform abortions under Arkansas law shall perform a detection of a heartbeat of an unborn human individual according to standard medical practice, including the use of medical devices as determined by standard medical practice.
(c)(1) The State Board of Health may adopt rules based on standard medical practice for testing for the fetal heartbeat of an unborn human individual.
The Virginia legislation didn’t specify use of transvaginal ultrasound either. But proponents acknowledged in debate that the invasive transvaginal probe must be used early in pregnancy. The original Virginia bill said, just as Rapert’s bill did: “The ultrasound image shall be made pursuant to standard medical practice in the community …”
I’ve asked Rapert if he believed his bill required the invasive procedure. I’ll let you know what he says.
UPDATE: One-word answer from Sen. Rapert: “No.” I’ve asked for more elaboration, given the similarity in language and the medical testimony in Virginia relative to what’s necessary to detect a fetal hearbeat in the earliest stages of pregnancy.
It’s enough to know that the Rapert legislation was equally offensive in many other ways — beginning with mandating a medical test on women that is not medically indicated. (It is the one mandate anti-health care reform legislators such as Rapert admire.) It also treated women like children by requiring them to be informed in writing of the findings of the test, including the presence of a heartbeat and the statistical probability of carrying a fetus to term. (In Virginia, women can choose not to receive the results.) It is exactly the shaming procedure that Doonesbury will caricature in a series of strips to be published this week.
There was an exception for “emergencies,” but not for women seeking an abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Rapert’s bill was even more punitive than the Virginia legislation in one respect — it required the ultrasound at least 24 hours before the abortion, where the original Virginia bill set the time at 2 hours. The 24-hour requirement turns a trip for an abortion — which likely means a pill in the very earliest stages of pregnancy — into a two-day mission at great distance to the few places in Arkansas still providing abortion services.
Republicans have been spoiling to beat up Linda Tyler on this issue. (Imagine, a woman more sensitive than a man to a women’s health issues. Doesn’t she know what the Bible says about who’s in charge?) But recent events may have altered the political dynamics somewhat. When I erred and wrote last week that a Rapert effort to criticize the Health Department spending with Planned Parenthood was on family planning, one of his operatives was lightning quick to correct that Rapert’s interest was about a sexually transmitted diseases program, not family planning. (Though the core issue on the STD program was condom distribution.)
It is still Arkansas. And Conway is home to big conservative fundamentalist churches that have over the years, among others, pushed for abstinence-only sex education in the public schools. Linda Tyler, in fact, might just as soon I not advertise that Jason Rapert is a champion for depriving women of their reproductive rights; for mandating unnecessary and expensive medical procedures, and for treating them like children when they visit doctors. But there it is.