When it comes to reproductive rights, I have some good news and some bad news. Recently I attended the groundbreaking for a new Planned Parenthood Center in Long Island City, an area of Queens I'm privileged to represent. The broad array of health services that this center will provide - from birth control to cancer screenings - will have a hugely positive impact on the lives of the women they will serve and their families. Thanks to the availability of safe, effective, and affordable birth control, and organizations like Planned Parenthood, the teenage pregnancy rate recently hit a record low. The lower pregnancy rates have contributed to the reduction in the abortion rate in the U.S., which has now dropped to its lowest level since the procedure became legal in 1973. That's the good news.
The bad news is that access to many forms of safe, effective birth control that millions of women use, and a woman's fundamental right to make her own reproductive choices, are in serious jeopardy. Women are facing the loss of hard won rights and being forcibly marched back to the 19th century.
All across the country right-wing candidates with extreme, outdated views on women's rights are running for seats in the U.S. Senate and calling for the passage of "personhood" bills and amendments. Make no mistake: the intended effect of personhood legislation is to ban virtually all abortions along with many of the widely used safe and effective forms of birth control, such as IUD's and Morning-After Pills.
This is not just alarmist liberal spin. The Republican candidate for Governor of Colorado has called IUD's abortifacients, a claim that is entirely without scientific or medical merit. In North Carolina, the Republican candidate for Senate says he believes the state should have the authority to ban contraceptives, even though 99 percent of reproductive age women have used at least one form of contraception. In Michigan, the Republican Senate candidate supports a personhood amendment that would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Such personhood bills could even affect women who desperately want to have a baby -- but are having trouble. Sean Tipton, chief advocacy and policy officer for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, has expressed fears that a personhood amendment would raise the possibility of murder charges against physicians trying to give their patients the best care possible.
Last year, the Republican controlled House actually passed H.R.1797, a bill that would override state laws and ban abortion after 20 weeks nationwide, with no exception to protect a woman's health, and without an adequate exception in cases of rape or incest.
Under the bill, physicians who violated the ban could receive a five-year prison sentence. Given that the average sentence for rape is just at five years, this 20-week ban could have the grotesque result of sending a woman's doctor to prison to serve a longer term than a woman's rapist.
Fortunately, the Democratically-controlled Senate never took up the bill, and it never became law. However, now there is a real concern that the safety brake of sanity provided by the upper chamber will be gone if the far-right gains control of the Senate this week.
Curiously, even though reproductive health is one of the most hotly disputed issues on the American political scene today, most people don't realize that the laws restricting abortion are relatively new.
In the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision, Supreme Court Justice Blackmun noted in his majority opinion that anti-abortion laws:
"... are not of ancient or even of common-law origin. Instead, they derive from statutory changes effected, for the most part, in the latter half of the 19th century."
Yes, the anti-choice laws in America were the product of a darker time in our history when women could not own property in their own name, could not hold a patent, practice law, medicine or dentistry, or even vote.
But today women have the right to vote. And since 1986, women have been voting in greater numbers than men even in non-presidential election years, such as this one. With a low turnout expected, it is going to be critically important for women to go to the polls -- and to bring along every family member and neighbor -- and use the power of the ballot box to tell their elected officials that reproductive choices should not be taken out of women's hands. Women must use their vote to proclaim they will not be meekly marched back to the 19th century. Because it would be maddening and absolutely heartbreaking to hear the question asked all over the country on November 5th: "Where were the women?"