1 Year After Supreme Court Win For Abortion Rights, What Has Changed?

Photo courtesy Aimee Arrambide
Getty | Saul Loeb
Photo courtesy Aimee Arrambide
Getty | Saul Loeb

Aimee Arrambide, center, protests outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in March 2016

On the morning of June 27, 2016, Aimee Arrambide sat at her computer, constantly refreshing law website SCOTUSBlog and nervously tapping out messages in a "gigantic group chat" with other abortion rights advocates. She and millions of others were awaiting a crucial Supreme Court decision in the Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt case, which would decide whether or not to uphold controversial abortion restrictions in Texas. They required the state's abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a hospital within a 30-mile radius and to ensure clinics met the same building specifications as ambulatory service centers.

The verdict would have special meaning for Arrambide, board secretary for Fund Texas Choice, an organization that helps Texan women pay for travel to their abortion appointments. It didn't take long until Arrambide found herself "in tears of joy." The Court ruled 5-3 that the restrictions, which were introduced in Texas under House Bill 2 back in 2013, placed an undue burden on women seeking their constitutional right to an abortion. HB2 required the state's abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a hospital within a 30-mile radius and to ensure clinics met the same building specifications as ambulatory service centers.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that it was "beyond rational belief" that HB2 could protect women's health.

The Supreme Court decided that these requirements, which would have shuttered the vast majority of the state's clinics, were medically unnecessary. In the decision, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that it was "beyond rational belief" that HB2 could protect women's health.

Although she was following the news in Washington, D.C. from Austin, Texas, "it was so reassuring to go through it with everyone else," says Arrambide. "It was one of those moments in my life that I'll never forget, because it's something I've been working for my whole professional career." She celebrated with other abortion rights advocates at a beer garden later that night.

This Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the Whole Woman's Health decision, which, given the current political climate, seems in some ways like just yesterday, and in others, like a lifetime ago. The administration of now-President Donald Trump includes several vocal antiabortion supporters, including Vice President Mike Pence, while individual states continue to push through legislation that attempts to limit abortion access. As a result, there's a new wave of well-founded fear for the future of reproductive rights in the U.S. Yet, despite renewed concerns, last year's decision actually resulted in some positive impacts for women in the United States.

Photo courtesy Aimee Arrambide
Getty | Saul Loeb

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman's Health and lead plaintiff, addresses press on the Supreme Court steps in March of 2016

"This Decision Said That Women Matter"

"Not only were the laws struck down in Texas, we've started to see clinics reopen in Texas," says Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank. More than half of Texas's 41 abortion clinics closed in the wake of HB2, leaving just 19 clinics for a population of nearly 13 million women. Since the Whole Woman's Health decision, two clinics have reopened. "That is really a huge step," says Nash. "Reopening a clinic is difficult in general. To see these clinics reopen really sets the tone that the decision impact is starting to be felt."

Nash says the Supreme Court decision has also acted as a deterrent: states are no longer so quick to adopt restrictions similar to those that were struck down in Texas. "We are not seeing those being enacted in new states, or even being introduced," she says. Where they are introduced, such as in Missouri, appeals are quickly filed.

"What this decision did was provide a framework for evaluating abortion restrictions and said that evidence matters, that women matter," says Nash. "That wasn't clear before."

And while the 41 abortion restrictions enacted in the 2017 legislative session may sound like a lot, it's actually a decline from the usual number, which tends to be higher after a major election, especially when a GOP majority wins. "You would typically see 50 restrictions enacted," says Nash. "It was surprising to us to see only 41 so far this year."

Arrambide, whose father was an abortion provider in Texas, says the very fact that abortion rights won in the Supreme Court is important and is"definitely something we can build upon." After working her entire professional life to make sure women have access to safe and legal abortion, the Whole Woman's Health decision meant Arrambide and her colleagues don't have to constantly be on the defense. There's also been an increase in legislation protecting abortion rights: so far this year, 133 bills have been introduced in 33 states.

"We're going to fight for abortion rights rather than against abortion restrictions," says Arrambide.

"The Opposition is Very Nimble"

Despite a year of some progress, it's still important to remember that a lot work needs to be done. Some states are "still extremely hostile to abortion rights," says Nash, and appear to have doubled down in the wake of Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. In March, Wyoming adopted its first new abortion restrictions in nearly 30 years, while 20-week abortion bans have been enacted in Kentucky, Iowa, and Ohio this year. The intent of such legislation, says Nash, is to restrict abortion rights.

"We're back every year fighting."

In Missouri, opposition to abortion borders on the absurd, mainly in the form on State Representative Mike Moon. Earlier this month, Moon killed and dismembered a chicken on camera, comparing it to an abortion procedure. He previously said the Missouri State Museum should include an exhibit on abortion, placed next to the section of the museum on slavery. In Oklahoma this year, the state legislature declared that abortion equals murder.

"The problem is, our opposition is very nimble and they're able to regroup and introduce new restrictions," says Arrambide.

Among those new restrictions include attempts to introduce macabre fetal cremation and burial requirements for woman who have had abortions. David Brown, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights who worked on the Supreme Court case, points to laws in Texas, Louisiana, and Indiana that would require women to have funerals for their embryos. The laws are currently ensnared in lawsuits, and opponents say the requirement is patronizing, inconvenient, costly, and potentially traumatizing. "We're looking at laws like that quite closely," Brown promises.

Back in Texas, the fight is not over. Governor Greg Abbott called a special legislative session, due to start on July 20, which will focus on a number of issues, including abortion. One of the bills recently signed by Abbott, Senate Bill 8, bans dilation and evacuation — or D&E — which advocates say is the most common and safest form of second trimester abortion. "The numbers [of procedures] are going to increase" and the wait times will get worse because of SB8, says Arrambide.

A new realization, says Arrambide, is that Texas's most recent legislative session has brought different groups together, including abortion rights advocates, immigrant justice groups, and LGBTQ organizations. "It's becoming more and more apparent that we can't fight this in our silo issues," she says. "That's not necessarily a direct result of Whole Woman's Health, but it is the federal administration combined with what we've been dealing with in Texas for decades."

And while Tuesday might not mimic the "beautiful day" of June 27, 2016, Arrambide is still proud of the progress made so far.

"People tend to write Texas off, but to me it was like, look at how hard Texans fight and persevere," she says. "We're back every year fighting."