TRAP Laws and Their Threat to the Feminist Movement
Written by Sofia Mucha
Have you ever been called a “baby murderer” by a middle-aged man at 7:30 in the morning? If you volunteer at a women’s health clinic, expect this moniker to be hurled at you quite frequently. The middle-aged man in question was one of the regular clinic protestors and always wore an outfit comprised of a wide brimmed straw hat and a black t-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon fetus. In one hand, he would hold a thick, leather bound Bible and, in the other, a megaphone in which he screeched offensive words and religious passages at those who entered the clinic’s parking lot.
As a volunteer patient escort, it was my responsibility to get the patients and their families safely into the clinic on days when abortion services were provided. I was required to wear a fluorescent yellow “PLANNED PARENTHOOD ESCORT” vest to distinguish myself from the protestors and shield the identities of the patients with an open umbrella as we walked towards the clinic doors. In the state of Florida, where I volunteered, it was legal for protestors to capture video and images of patients entering the clinic. Anti-choice groups would then use these images to harass patients on blogs, websites, and other publications. The thin veil of privacy the umbrella provided made a substantial difference for many of the women entering the clinic on abortion service days.
My two years of volunteering at Planned Parenthood was extremely transformative and solidified my stance as a pro-choice feminist. However, one aspect of my work that I found particularly frustrating was the constantly changing laws in the state of Florida aimed at restricting abortion access. These laws are referred to as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider laws, or TRAP laws. TRAP bills single out abortion providers with medically unnecessary state regulations that are often politically motivated (ACLU). There are three main types of TRAP laws: measures that require needless medical regulations and building requirements, provisions that require licensing of abortion clinics, and protocols that designate abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical centers (ACLU). Ever since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade that legalized abortion, conservative lawmakers have been using these types of laws to impose strict restrictions on abortion clinics (Guttmacher Institute). Since 2010, 288 TRAP laws have been passed by many conservative state legislatures, including my home state of Florida (Trapped). During my time as a patient escort, I saw first-hand how these laws affected the women seeking abortions in my hometown. I also quickly realized how these laws were inherently dangerous to the feminist movement.
In her seminal work Feminism is for Everybody, author and feminist activist bell hooks writes, “If feminism is a movement to end sexual oppression, and depriving females of reproductive rights is a form of sexist oppression, then one cannot be anti-choice and feminist” (hooks pg.6). According to hooks, the belief in a woman’s right to choose is a main tenet of feminism. Because TRAP laws in their very nature are designed to deprive women of their reproductive rights, I believe that they are a threat to feminism itself. These laws are more than just a conservative political strategy, they are aimed at protecting a “capitalist patriarchal male-dominated medical system that controls women’s bodies” (hooks pg.27).
Abortion became a major issue within the feminist movement due to the fact that the women’s liberation movement followed right in the wake of civil rights and sexual liberation (hooks pg.25). The sexual revolution was at its peak and women were having as much sex as they wanted. However, this led to the inevitable issue of unwanted pregnancies. There would not be any real gender equality in the sexual revolution if women did not have access to safe, effective contraceptives and abortions (hooks pg. 25). Without access to these basic human rights, women, especially poor women of color, are required to either endure deadly illegal abortions or forced marriages as a result of an unintended pregnancy (hooks pg.26). Therefore, abortion and the pro-choice cause became a central focus of the feminist movement. Though there are many complex issues within the feminist movement, abortion captured the attention of mass media because it was a direct challenge to religion and the patriarchy, two systems that have a significant influence on our society (hooks pg. 27). The idea that a woman’s existence is only meant for bearing children is a central belief of both patriarchal and Christian societies. By demanding that women have access to abortion and contraception, feminism threatens this fundamentalist thinking (hooks pg. 27).
A crucial aspect of feminism’s pro-choice dogma is the idea that women of all races and classes should have equal access to abortion (hooks pg. 28). Often, white women with class privilege have an easier time procuring abortions and birth control. The anti-choice platform is aware of this unfortunate fact, so they frequently target state-funded, inexpensive, and free abortions (hooks pg. 28). Because TRAP laws are devised to focus on these types of abortions, working-class women tend to feel their intended effects the most. As portrayed in the documentary Trapped, when TRAP bills are passed, the number of clinics in a state are drastically reduced (Trapped). When clinics are closed, women from low income and rural areas are forced to travel hundreds of miles to access abortion services. This requires extensive travel costs, such as transportation, child care, and lodging (Hogue). Abortions are already an expensive medical procedure, so coupled with the cost of travel, many working-class women simply can’t afford to have one (Hogue). Not only do TRAP laws violate the feminist belief that women should have a right to an abortion, they also ensure that poor women continue to have disproportionate access to them.
There is a debate within the feminist movement on whether or not an individual can identify as both feminist and anti-choice. In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks addresses the conundrum of being a feminist with anti-choice sentiments. According to hooks, “while it is possible for women to individually choose to never have an abortion, allegiance to feminist politics means that they are still pro-choice, that they support the right of females who need abortions to choose whether or not to have them” (hooks pg. 29). With access to abortion being such a crucial issue for women, I have to agree with hooks’ assessment that one cannot be anti-choice and an advocate of feminism (hooks pg. 6). Therefore, if an individual identifies as a feminist, they cannot support TRAP laws or any legislation restricting abortion.
When conservative lawmakers pass TRAP laws, they claim they are doing so to “protect” women. However, these “protections” are unnecessary because abortions are one of the safest medical procedures you can have and abortion clinics already have to comply with the same regulations as comparable health centers (NARAL). All health centers, abortion clinics included, must observe restrictions outlined by the federal Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (NARAL). The medical facilities where abortions are performed also must comply with standards from state and local governments for sanitation and disease control, zoning, building codes, and disaster safety (NARAL). There is also the undeniable fact that abortions are a very safe type of medical procedure, safer than wisdom teeth extractions and childbirth itself (Gold and Hasstedt). With all the regulations abortion providers already must face, TRAP laws place an undue burden on clinics. TRAP laws aren’t passed in an effort to make abortion safer; they are a political strategy used to restrict reproductive health rights (Medoff).
There are currently 24 states that have laws and policies that go beyond what is necessary to ensure patients’ safety during an abortion procedure (Guttmacher Institute). 18 states have licensing standards that are equivalent to state’s licensing standards for ambulatory surgical centers (Guttmacher Institute). Ambulatory surgical centers tend to provide more invasive procedures and use higher levels of sedation, neither of which are required for an abortion. 17 states have specific requirements for procedure rooms and corridors, with 9 states specifying the size of procedure rooms and 8 states requiring clinics to be within a set distance from a hospital (Guttmacher Institute). 11 states require abortion providers to either have admitting privileges or be a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist (Guttmacher Institute). There are countless examples of these laws on the books, but these types of TRAP laws are the most restrictive. As more and more TRAP laws are passed, clinics, especially privately-owned clinics, struggle to keep up with the long list of requirements, forcing many to close. By shutting down clinics and making it that more difficult for women to access safe and legal abortions, TRAP laws jeopardize women’s health (ACLU).
Those who are in favor of TRAP laws claim that they do not restrict access to abortion and do not force the closure of abortion clinics. This could not be further from the truth and the devastating impact of TRAP legislation could be seen with the recent bill passed in the Texas legislature know as House Bill 2. This bill was introduced to the Texas state legislature on June 28, 2013 and included multiple abortion restrictions, including a 20-week ban on abortion, admitting privileges requirements, ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements, reporting requirements, and restrictions on medication abortion (Gold and Hasstedt). The omnibus bill banned abortions at 20 weeks post-fertilization, unless deemed by a physician to be necessary to avoid the woman’s death. It also included findings based on dangerous junk science that claims a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, even though it has been proven time and time again that this is not true (Gold and Hasstedt). The admitting privileges part of the bill required physicians to have admitting privileges at a hospital located no more than 30 miles from where the abortion was performed (Gold and Hasstedt). Not only is it completely unnecessary for an abortion provider to have admitting privileges, it can also be close to impossible for them to get. Doctors often live too far away from the hospitals or cannot meet the minimum number of patients required for admitting privileges because of the safety rate of abortion. Also, some hospitals have religious objections or do not want to be associated with such a politically-charged issue, so they will deny doctors admitting privileges (Gold and Hasstedt). House Bill 2 also required abortion facilities to meet minimum standards adopted for ambulatory surgical centers. Again, these ASC requirements are totally unnecessary because abortions are a safe procedure and don’t require the use of a surgical center usually used for more invasive procedures. House Bill 2 further restricted abortions in Texas by prohibiting anyone other than a physician from prescribing abortion-inducing drugs such as the mifepristone-misoprostol regimen commonly used in medical abortions (Gold and Hasstedt). The final blow to abortion access that House Bill 2 delivered was the scaling back of Texas’ expansion of Medicaid for family planning care by denying funds to centers that provide abortion. Though many anti-choice activists like to claim that abortion is paid for by our tax dollars, this simply is not true. The Hyde Amendment of 1977 banned state use of federal Medicaid dollars to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape and incest (Gold and Hasstedt). Now, abortion providers are forced to wait for Medicaid reimbursements that often never come. With Medicaid providing 75% of all public funds for family planning, House Bill 2 would be keeping millions of women from accessing the healthcare they need (Gold and Hasstedt). This bill posed a serious threat to women in Texas and many efforts were made to stop its passage in the Texas House. In June of, 2013, Senator Wendy Davis (D- Texas) filibustered for 13 hours on the Texas Senate floor in the hopes of killing House Bill 2. If Senator Davis was able to hold the floor until midnight, the special legislative session would have ended without the bill passing (Weber). She wasn’t able to hold the floor, getting ruled out of order two hours shy of the deadline by republican lieutenant governor David Dewhurst (Weber). At two minutes past midnight, the Senate passed House Bill 2. However, because the roll call didn’t start until after midnight, the vote was null and void and the bill was delayed (Weber). Though this was a victory for the pro-choice movement, it was a short-lived one. A few weeks later on July 18, 2013, Governor Rick Perry signed House Bill 2 into law during a second special legislative session. Unfortunately, Texas women would immediately feel the effects of this dangerous legislation.
Before Texas House Bill 2 was signed into law, there were more than 40 active abortion clinics in Texas (Trapped). After the bill was signed into law, only 19 clinics remained (Trapped). When the restrictions outlined in the bill took effect, many clinics couldn’t meet the terms and were forced to shut their doors. The closure of half of Texas’ clinics put immense pressure on the facilities that remained open. In the documentary Trapped, the remaining abortion clinics in Texas are shown as being overwhelmed with thousands of new patients and in some cases, women had to be turned away due to the high volume of patients (Trapped). Seeing the risk this bill posed to women’s health, clinics throughout the state decided sue Texas in an effort to invalidate the provisions within House Bill 2. In 2015, Whole Woman’s Health, along with several other abortion providers, brought their case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the requirements listed in House Bill 2 placed an “undue burden” on abortion clinics in Texas. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt, was argued in March of 2016 and required the Supreme Court to apply the substantial burden test, weighing the extent to which the laws in question actually serve the stated government interest against the burden they impose (Gold and Hasstedt). The case was finally decided on June 27, 2016 in favor of Whole Woman’s Health (Gold and Hasstedt). Justice Stephen Breyer delivered the opinion for the 5–3 majority, stating that the provisions of House Bill 2 are not medically beneficial enough to justify the burdens they impose on women seeking to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion (Gold and Hasstedt). Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had this to say about House Bill 2: “It is beyond rational belief that House Bill 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions” (Planned Parenthood). This was a major victory for the pro-choice cause and for the feminist movement itself. There would still be aspects of House Bill 2 in effect, but the admitting privileges and ASC requirements would no longer be required. However, it is important to note that this victory for women’s health only applied to clinics in Texas. TRAP laws are still widespread throughout conservative states and Texas still imposes many restrictions on abortion.
Passed under the guise of protecting women’s health, these laws make it difficult for small, independent providers to perform abortions as they struggle to comply with onerous regulations. TRAP laws even subject abortion providers to civil and criminal penalties if they cannot keep up with requirements. They force clinics to transform into miniature hospitals and do not reflect the best medical standards. Texas is only one example of how harmful TRAP laws can be and the problem spreads far beyond that one state. The Southern region of the United States has been hit the hardest by TRAP legislation (ACLU). Mississippi has a law that is currently blocked in the courts, but if passed would shut down the one remaining clinic in the state. Alabama has a law that if passed would leave only 2 clinics in the entire state. In Oklahoma and Louisiana, the legislatures are close to passing similar laws. Even beyond the south, in states like Wisconsin, there are laws waiting to be passed that would drastically reduce a woman’s access to abortion (ACLU). Besides keeping women from their right to an abortion, TRAP laws are also putting extreme pressure on the dwindling number of abortion doctors in the United States. Many doctors who are capable of providing safe and effective abortions cannot do so because of admitting privilege requirements outlined in TRAP legislation. This has caused a dangerous shortage of abortion doctors, forcing them to travel hundreds of miles every day to meet the needs of clinics around the country. In the documentary Trapped, the issue of doctor shortages is experienced by every clinic featured in the movie. The documentary depicts the struggle of one abortion provider, Dr. Willie Parker, as he attempts to service clinics in four different states at once (Trapped). A longtime physician and abortion provider, Dr. Willie Parker, would travel hundreds of miles to Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina to provide care to women where no one else would (Trapped). This shows that TRAP laws not only place an undue burden on the women seeking abortions, but also on the doctors who can provide abortions.
During my time as a volunteer with Planned Parenthood in Naples, Florida, I saw the clinic face new abortion legislation and TRAP laws every day. When a new piece of restrictive legislation was up for a vote in Florida, volunteers would receive a tense email from Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida explaining the implications the laws could have on the day-to-day operations of our clinic. Mandatory ultrasounds, 24-hour waiting periods, and admitting privilege requirements would come and go as the Florida legislature continuously made an effort to restrict abortion access in the state. On March 25, 2016, Florida governor Rick Scott signed into law House Bill 1411 (Mondeiro). This bill increased regulations on all 62 of the abortion clinics in Florida, including the Planned Parenthood clinic I volunteered at. In response to the egregious attack on Florida women’s right to a safe and effective abortion, Laura Goodhue, the executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood affiliates called the laws, “an extremely coordinated attack on women’s health care” (Mondeiro). Goodhue condemned House Bill 1411, stating, “None of this is medically necessary whatsoever…women have the legal rights to obtain a medical procedure and when you punish providers, women are punished regardless” (Mondeiro). I can remember the nervous tension around the clinic when this bill was passed because it put our clinic at significant risk of not being able to provide abortions to women in my hometown. Fortunately, clinics operated by large organizations like Planned Parenthood usually have the resources to keep up with these regulations. However, for privately-owned clinics in Florida and other states with rampant TRAP legislation, it is impossible to afford the requirements outlined in these laws. As a patient escort, I saw first-hand the fear women in my community had over the prospect of losing this vital source of healthcare. For many women, Planned Parenthood isn’t just a resource for obtaining an abortion, it is their only source of healthcare. Though Planned Parenthood is commonly equated with abortion, it also provides a myriad of healthcare services for both men and women. Along with sexual and reproductive health services, Planned Parenthood also offers general health care services such as anemia testing, cholesterol screenings, diabetes screenings, physical exams, flu vaccines, help with quitting smoking, high blood pressure screenings, tetanus vaccines, and thyroid screenings. By restricting access to Planned Parenthood, conservative lawmakers are also restricting access to basic healthcare needs. As more and more anti-choice laws were being passed in the Florida legislature, I would hear concerns from patients as to whether or not Planned Parenthood’s doors would even stay open. As a feminist, I was sickened by the idea of a woman in my hometown not being able to practice her constitutional right to have a safe and legal abortion.
TRAP laws are inherently dangerous to feminism because they are designed to keep women from having abortions. In her book Feminism is for Everybody, feminist activist bell hooks emphasizes the idea that to be feminist, you must be pro-choice. It is her belief, as well as mine, that being pro-choice is a major tenet of feminism and that “allegiance to feminist politics means that (women) are pro-choice, that they support the right of females who need abortions to choose whether or not to have them” (hooks pg.29). While it’s easy to focus on the nitty-gritty details of TRAP laws, it is crucial to understand that they are essentially a threat to feminism itself. Though there are small movements within feminism that claim an individual can be anti-choice and a feminist, a majority agree that pro-choice sentiments are a fundamental aspect of feminist politics. In her book My Life on the Road, feminist activist Gloria Steinem echoes the ideas of bell hooks, stating that reproductive rights are one of the most important issues within feminism today (Vagianos). In 1957, at age 22, Steinem was forced to get an illegal abortion because of the laws that existed at the time that entirely restricted a woman’s right to an abortion (Vagianos). The experience made her realize how abortion is both a fundamental human right and major part of identifying as a feminist (Vagianos). Steinem writes, “So I sat there as a reporter for New York Magazine listening to women tell their stories that were tragic and ludicrous… and suddenly I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I had an abortion.’ And actually one in three American women had needed an abortion at some time in her life, so why is this illegal and why is it dangerous?” (Vagianos). Steinem then stated the crux of the abortion issue in regards to feminism: “the definition of the patriarchy is to be able to control reproduction, and that means you have to control women’s bodies” (Vagianos). This reiterates the idea that TRAP laws in their very nature aren’t just an apparatus of conservative political strategy, but are actually a tool of the patriarchy itself. Abortion regulations are a way for men to use their political power to enforce patriarchal ideals and keep control over women. In order for the patriarchy to ever be dismantled, the feminist movement must support a pro-choice political platform and commit to fighting targeted regulation of abortion provider laws.
My experience as a patient escort at Planned Parenthood solidified my stance as a pro-choice feminist and inspired me to pursue a career in politics so I can combat harmful anti-choice legislation. Seeing how TRAP laws negatively impacted the clinic and my local community really made me consider the implications this type of legislation has on feminism itself. I believe that in order for the feminist movement to be successful in ending the toxic influence of patriarchal ideals in our society, it must adopt a widespread pro-choice platform. My belief is best summed up by the words of bell hooks in Feminism is for Everybody: “Granting women the civil right to have control over our bodies is a basic feminist principle. Whether an individual female should have an abortion is purely a matter of choice. It is not anti-feminist for us to choose not to have abortions. But it is a feminist principle that women should have the right to choose” (hooks pg.114).
· “ACLU TRAP Laws Fact Sheet.” American Civil Liberties Union. n.d. Web.
· Corderio, Monivette. “Florida’s Latest Anti-Abortion Law Snares Women and Clinics in Ever-Tighter Restrictions.” The Orlando Weekly, 13 Apr. 2016
· Gold, Rachel Benson, and Kinsey Hasstedt. “Lessons From Texas: Widespread Consequences of Assaults on Abortion Access.” American Journal of Public Health 106.6 (2016): 970–71. Web.
· Hogue, Ilyse. “Anti-Choice TRAP Laws Prevent Low-Income Women from Determining Their Own Destiny.” Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, 29 Feb. 2016
· hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody. Routledge, 2015
· Medoff, Marshall H. “State Abortion Policies, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider Laws, and Abortion Demand.” Review of Policy Research 27.5 (2010): 577–94. Web.
· “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers” Guttmacher Institute. 03 Apr. 2017. Web.
· “TRAP Laws Are Dangerously Chipping Away at Abortion Access Under the Guise of ‘Women’s Health’.” Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Planned Parenthood, n.d. Web.
· “TRAP Laws.” NARAl Pro-Choice America. N.p. 2017. Web.
· Trapped. Dir. Dawn Porter. 2016. DVD
· Vagianos, Alanna. “Gloria Steinem on Getting An Illegal Abortion at 22.” The Huffington Post, 27 Oct. 2015
· Weber, Peter. “Wendy Davis’ Stunning Filibuster of a Texas Abortion Bill.” This Week.com, 26 Jun. 2013