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Human Rights Watch

Dispatches: Regulating US Abortion Providers Off the Map

Pro-abortion supporters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court (not pictured) during the National March for Life rally in Washington January 22, 2016.
© 2016 Reuters

Today, the United States Supreme Court will take up the most important abortion rights case in at least a decade, hearing arguments over the constitutionality of a Texas law that imposes onerous requirements on abortion providers. The law – HB 2 – sparked a slew of clinic closures in Texas and has dramatically impeded access to abortion for women in the state.

On its face, the law’s technical requirements – such as clinics meeting certain building standards and doctors maintaining admitting privileges at local hospitals – may seem removed from the abortion debate. But there is little doubt among advocates on either side that this case is about the future of reproductive rights and access to abortion in the US.

The Texas law is one of dozens of targeted regulation of abortion providers laws passed by state legislatures. While they claim to protect women’s health by setting standards, these laws have little to do with the reality of abortion procedures, which are low-risk and safer than other procedures, like colonoscopies, regularly performed in doctors’ offices or outpatient clinics.

Instead, laws like the one before the court right now serve to regulate abortion providers off the map by making it logistically difficult and extremely costly to stay in operation. Since HB 2 passed, 21 out of 40 providers in Texas have shut their doors; another nine or 10 hang in the balance. A recent analysis found that at least 162 abortion clinics had closed across the country since 2011, while only 21 new clinics opened their doors.

Very little remains of a right if the government can make it nearly impossible to exercise. As the amicus brief filed by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health points out, that is why the European Court of Human Rights has held that where a country legally permits abortion, “it must not structure its legal framework in a way which would limit real possibilities to obtain [an abortion].” The Supreme Court should recognize that for women in Texas, and in some other states that have enacted similar laws, those real possibilities are fast disappearing. 

Meghan Rhoad

Meghan Rhoad is the US researcher in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch, currently focusing on violence against women. Her work at Human Rights Watch has included documentation of abuses suffered by women in US immigration detention, research into sexual violence affecting Somali women and girls in Kenyan refugee camps, and fact-finding in Haiti on the situation of women and girls displaced by the 2010 earthquake. Rhoad was formerly a women's law & public policy fellow at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, DC, where she researched US federal judicial nominations and analyzed policy developments affecting the economic security of low-income women and their families. Her previous work includes international advocacy projects using the human rights framework to address issues such as reproductive health and gender discrimination in inheritance law. Rhoad is a graduate of Harvard University and Georgetown University Law Center.

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