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The Fight for Women's Rights in America's South

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This year's American presidential election was supposed to have been about the economy, a referendum on how whether president Obama had done enough to revive America's economic fortunes after the crash of 2008. Then Missouri congressman Todd Akin chose to give his views on the issue of abortion. His shudderingly crass assertions included those of "legitimate rape" and how a woman's body can supposedly head off a potential pregnancy caused through sexual assault by "shutting down". The consequence of his statements was to open up an aperture into how those in Republican Party view women and their policies aimed at limiting their access to healthcare services. Although the Republican ticket of Romney and Ryan put pressure on Akin to step down from the race, they could not profess sincerely felt indignation when they themselves were running on a platform of opposing abortion even in the cases of rape and incest.

Yet if there was a 'war on women' being waged by the Republican Party, several female candidates came out victorious. Akin was defeated in his Senate race by Claire McCaskill whilst in North Dakota, Heidi Heidtkamp defeated Rick Berg to become the first elected female Democratic senator in the state. These wins will see a record number of women in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But while this is progress on a federal level, on a state level there remain many who match Akin's, Romney's and Ryan's views on women's access to healthcare and who are prepared to use their legislative positions to decrease the number of the facilities available.

In the state of Virginia, the issue is particularly contentious, especially after planned changes to the state's legislature made international news back in the spring. The planned changes introduced by Governor Bob McDonnell included forcing women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound examination involving a vaginal probe. An international outcry led to the requirement of the vaginal probe being dropped although the ultrasound investigation was passed.

Another piece of legislature was introduced in March 2011, stipulating that abortion clinics in the state had to meet the same building standards as other medical practices such as dentists and hospitals. Known as TRAP (Targeted Restrictions against Abortion Providers) laws, they have been passed in several other states across the country. The implementation of the legislation came from the 2010 Guidelines for the Design and Construction of Health Care facilities. These required all facilities to meet certain architectural standards such as wide hallways and tall ceilings.

In June of this year, Virginia's state board of health passed a grandfather clause, exempting the state's 20 clinics from the regulations. This angered the state's anti-choice attorney general Ken Cuccinelli who told the board that they had overstepped their authority and told them that they had to vote again. The public meeting that followed this September was a highly-charged event with members of organisations from both sides of the debate lining up three hours before the meeting was due to start. Both sides were given the chance to make their case over the amendment made to the new laws yet there was a feeling that the fifteen board members had already made their minds up.

Or had had their minds made up for them. Earlier in the week leading up to the board's meeting, a local paper, the Virginian Pilot, revealed a memo sent to the board members by Cuccinelli. In it, the attorney general threatened them with repercussions if the desired result was not reached second time round. The ramifications for any subordination included being denied state legal counsel and having to pay for their own defense. Board member James Edmondson revealed the tone of the message sent by Cuccinelli saying, "I heard what amounted to, maybe not a threat, but a warning that there was a risk, exposure if we as a board acted outside our scope, our authority."

Board chairman Bruce Edwards was more even candid about Cuccinelli's personal politics being involved in a supposedly independent board. "I've learned a long time ago that if the attorneys advise me to do something in a certain way, that's the way I do it," he said.

When the result was announced, a 13-2 vote to overturn the board's previous decision and enforce the regulations on existing abortion clinics, it came as little surprise. Pro-choice protestors started shouting "Shame, shame, shame!" before they were escorted out of the meeting. The emotion of the occasion got to some of the board members with Edmondson visibly upset at the result. Trying to make a statement to the assembled television crews, he was only able to tearfully say, "access matters" before once again losing his composure.

In the face of the introduction of the two pieces of legislation, Virginian women have organised themselves and are preparing for the ramifications of when the TRAP laws are introduced. Two women who work for the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project, Emily Johnson and Autumn Sumner, spoke of how the TRAP laws will affect their work. "At the moment we fund abortions for women who aren't able to pay," said Sumner, "we organise transport and accommodation if it's necessary for a woman to stay overnight. If the TRAP laws go through with this amendment put back in, we're going to have to adapt. The cost of an abortion will go up which means that we'll have to spend more money on one person and so we'll end up helping less women."

Asked about the effect that Governor McDonnell's legislation had their work and Johnson raised a smile. "That actually helped us, as after that, we started getting a lot more donations. We went from raising $19,000 in one year to $43,000."

All across the country, there are states that have introduced TRAP laws, forcing abortion clinics to spend tens of thousands on non-essential upgrades, thereby leading many to have to close down. The prescribed changes are often cosmetic and are nothing to do with ensuring the safety of women's health, which legislators claim is at the heart of the TRAP laws. There is the example of the state of Kansas, which has both anti-choice legislatures and governors. In July, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and the Kansas Department of Health put in place regulations targeting abortion clinics that proscribed the size of the janitor's closets, the temperature at which rooms should be kept, and the size of staff and patient lockers. 

Additional requirements included making sure that clinics are prepared to deal with a "live birth". Given that a "live birth" in the first trimester is impossible in any pregnancy and the true intent of the legislation hiding behind bureaucratic zealotry is revealed. In South Carolina, regulations stipulate similarly irrelevant aspects of a clinic's physical dimensions, down to the types of tap to be installed in sinks. 

For those who work and run abortion clinics, the outlook is looking bleak. Shelley Abrams, who runs A Capital Women's Health Clinic in Richmond, Virginia became involved in the fight for women's rights in 1993 after the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Florida. She started running clinics in Alabama before moving to Richmond and setting up her present clinic in 2001. She says that the current fight for women's rights in America is at an all time low, the worst it has been since 1973, the year of Roe vs. Wade. Abrams not only has to face anti-choice protestors who harass her vendors but has to deal with the effects of Bob McDonnell's legislation. "People who were coming in here at that time were certainly very afraid," says Abrams. "We had to talk to them through the procedure, allay their fears and reassure them that we weren't going to be shutting down."

Asked about the future of Virginia's 20 abortion clinics and Abrams is very downbeat. "From what I'm hearing, a significant number of clinics will have to shut down. I'm not sure whether we will have the money to renovate and it's hard to imagine not being here."