On a Friday morning in September 2005, 22-year-old Brittany Wilson sat in a Planned Parenthood clinic a mile away from her home in Sioux Falls, S.D., and bawled her eyes out.
Ten days before, she had called the clinic to schedule an abortion. Three days before her appointment, she had called back to listen to some state-mandated information about the risks of abortion and her legal rights. And moments before, she had driven to the clinic alone and paid $447. But she was crying, she would later say, because she did not want this abortion.
The Planned Parenthood staffer whose job it was to make sure this abortion was voluntary and informed noticed Brittany’s distress and asked her if she had considered adoption. Brittany said she did not “want to do that.”
Through the staffer, the doctor told Brittany she didn’t have to have the abortion that day. Brittany said, “I’m alright,” and went out to lunch.
Later that day, a doctor vacuumed out her 7-week-old embryo.
In the months and years that followed, Brittany would say in federal court that her boyfriend had forced her to have an abortion she didn’t want. She blamed Planned Parenthood for letting it happen. Brittany did not sue the abortion provider, but testified in defense of a 2005 state law requiring abortion providers to inform clients of certain state-determined risks of abortion — some of which are disputed by mainstream scientific organizations — including the claim that abortion puts women at higher risk for depression and suicide. (The legal challenge over the 2005 law was finally resolved this year, with all of the controversial provisions being upheld on appeal.)
In her testimony – given during a deposition under oath and later in a handwritten declaration – Brittany asserted that Planned Parenthood had not given her enough information to help her make an informed decision. She also said that after her abortion, she had an emotional breakdown and started drinking heavily; she indicated that she had already been taking medicine to treat depression before the abortion.
Brittany’s story is again being used in federal court — this time to defend a South Dakota law that addresses the issue of coerced abortion. Anti-abortion advocates have claimed that coerced abortion has reached crisis levels in the United States, despite a lack of scientific evidence showing that to be the case. The law – pieces of which went into effect in July – is part of a national legislative trend pushed by anti-abortion leaders, which in large part relies on the testimony of women who regret their abortions.
This year alone, at least 11 states have considered abortion bills that deal with coercion,according to Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion policy group in Washington, D.C. AUL specializes in anti-abortion model legislation and has developed an anti-coercion bill, titled “Coercive Abuse Against Mothers Prevention Act.”
Often, anti-coercion policies are introduced as part of a package of restrictions and regulations and either dictate that an abortion provider must screen women for coercion, as in the case of a recently passed law in Wisconsin, or that an abortion provider must post signs in abortion clinic waiting rooms saying that it is illegal for anyone to pressure a woman into having an abortion, as in the case of a new law in Arizona. An omnibus anti-abortion bill in Michigan, which would enact similar coercion-related policies, passed the state House earlier this year and is now being considered by the state Senate.
South Dakota’s new law, which was passed last year and modified this year, goes far beyond simply mandating that the abortion doctor screen for coercion. If the law survives the legal challenge, women will have to wait 72 hours after they schedule the abortion, meaning they will have to make two trips to the state’s only abortion clinic in Sioux Falls, which provides abortions once a week on average. During that waiting period, women will have to submit to an interview at one of three state-sanctioned “pregnancy help centers,” all of which are faith-based and are vocally opposed to abortion. The point of this interview, as stated in the bill, is so the pregnancy help center can “discuss [the pregnant woman’s] circumstances that may subject her to coercion.” Additionally, the pregnancy help centers can use the interview as an opportunity to “inform the pregnant mother … what counseling, education, and assistance that is available to the pregnant mother to help her maintain her relationship with her unborn child.”
Some of these new anti-coercion laws, including South Dakota’s, contain provisions making it easier to sue abortion doctors for failing to adequately screen for coercion.
Supporters of anti-coercion abortion bills argue that these policies are meant to protect women. But critics claim that – like laws that single out abortion clinics by imposing difficult-to-meet construction requirements – anti-coercion policies are really meant to make accessing abortion more complicated in the short term, and illegal in the long term.
The South Dakota lawmaker behind the state’s new anti-coercion abortion law and the 2005 informed-consent abortion law told The American Independent that the underlying intention of these bills was to create a legal framework for more abortion restrictions.
“This law, and even the 2005 law, basically legally speaking, this doesn’t deal with the same legal theories that Roe v. Wade dealt with,” Rep. Roger Hunt (R-Brandon) said. “This presents brand-new legal arguments … relative to abortions. The basic idea is that these laws would allow the Supreme Court to give states the right to adopt similar legislation.”
Legal scholars, such as Yale University law professor Reva Siegel, have described the rationale underpinning these types of laws as the “woman-protective” anti-abortion argument. Siegel, who has written extensively about anti-coercion efforts in South Dakota and elsewhere, observed in a 2008 Duke Law Journal article that the anti-abortion movement has begun to “supplant the constitutional argument ‘Abortion kills a baby’ with a new claim ‘Abortion hurts women.’”
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