Guest Opinion

On Sept. 30, Arizona will take a big step backward in terms of abortion rights

Last summer, I had a fascinating conversation with my grandmother about her memories of the Great Depression. She told me about a married man in her small town who knocked up two women on the side; one woman was kicked out of her parents' house, and the other was rendered permanently sterile by an illegal abortion.

A dismal economic situation notwithstanding, things have changed considerably since the 1930s. If a scenario such as the one above were to occur today, that first girl would be more likely to enjoy good communication with her parents; the second would have access to a safe and legal abortion.

But even now that abortion is legal, opponents of choice have created so many restrictions that we're starting to backslide toward the bad old days of secrecy and hardship. While there is certainly less stigma attached to teenage pregnancy, and most girls can talk openly with their parents about issues such as abortion and adoption, there are still too many girls who can't approach their parents with news of an unintended pregnancy. And regardless of age, any woman who lives in one of the 87 percent of U.S. counties without abortion services will face obstacles.

With the abortion omnibus bill signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer and set to take effect on Sept. 30, abortion will be that much more difficult to access in Arizona. Minors and low-income women will be most affected.

Currently, a minor can obtain an abortion with the written consent of a parent or guardian. Under the new law, however, that parental consent must be notarized. The introduction of a third party into a private family matter is an overt violation of a patient's right to privacy. Moreover, minors who don't enjoy good family communication will face added hurdles if they seek a judicial bypass, as the bill introduces provisions that make that process more difficult.

Also beginning Sept. 30, a mandated 24-hour waiting period will create additional burdens. Child care and time off work will need to be arranged for two days instead of one, and women living in farther-flung locations will be forced to travel longer distances and possibly secure overnight lodging. Low-income women, who are more likely to have difficulty making such arrangements, will be disproportionately affected; they could face the loss of employment and other obstacles.

Furthermore, advanced-practice clinicians will be prohibited from performing abortions, contrary to the Arizona State Board of Nursing's position that trained nurse practitioners are suited to perform first-trimester abortions. This could further limit access to the procedure if physicians cannot be found to take their places.

Emotions run high on both sides of the debate. While abortion opponents are celebrating a major victory with the abortion omnibus bill's passage, supporters of abortion rights will fight back, starting at the grassroots level. The emergence of an underground network in which private citizens come forward to offer women help with travel and lodging would not be unexpected.

It would not be the first time in Arizona's history that women relied on underground networks for help accessing safe abortions. Many people would be surprised to learn that in Tucson, clergymen played a vital role in abortion rights before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The Clergy Counseling Service took advantage of clergy-confidentiality laws to help Arizona women obtain abortion services in California, where the procedure had been legal since 1967. Restrictions in place at the time provoked the secrecy with which this counseling was carried out. The simple act of sharing information and resources in order to help a woman leave the state for a legal abortion could have gotten most people in hot water, but clergy members and the women they counseled were afforded confidentiality by law.

While this was certainly a valuable resource for Arizona women, it was no substitute for the increased access that eventually became available after 1973. Unfortunately, measures such as those introduced by the abortion omnibus bill are taking a sledgehammer to the rights granted by Roe v. Wade.

The paradox here is that any truly significant reduction in abortion rates is going to come from strategies—such as medically accurate sex education and access to contraception—championed by abortion-rights advocates. These are the only methods that have been proven to result in a substantial decline in abortion rates. The abortion omnibus bill, however, does nothing to address the root causes of unintended pregnancies.