Making Abortion Stigma Law

Making Abortion Stigma Law

No school district, employee or agent thereof, or educational service provider contracting with such school district shall provide abortion services. No school district shall permit any person or entity to offer, sponsor or otherwise furnish in any manner any course materials or instruction relating to human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases if such person or entity is an abortion services provider, or an employee, agent or volunteer of an abortion services provider.

The above provision is contained in a nearly fifty-page bill that recently went into effect in Kansas. (A judge temporarily blocked two other provisions of the law but allowed this one to remain.)

To be sure, the relentless assault on abortion that we are currently seeing in other state legislatures—TexasOhio, and North Carolina, among others—is far more consequential in the short run. Ambulatory surgical center (ASC) and hospital-admitting privilege requirements really do have the capacity to shut down clinics. Should the Texas bill currently being considered become law—as is likely, despite the heroic efforts of the thousands of orange-shirters gathered at the capitol—the number of Texas abortion facilities would go from forty-seven to five in that huge state. Already, due to a similar ASC requirement rammed through the Pennsylvania legislature as a cynical response to the Kermit Gosnell scandal, a number of clinics in Pennsylvania have closed. And the bans on abortions after twenty weeks, adopted by a number of states, will affect a relatively small number of women, but typically those in desperate medical and/or social conditions.

But other, less-discussed provisions of abortion legislation—the Kansas provision cited above being a prime example—do a different kind of damage. They further the stigmatization and marginalization of abortion providers by making clear that these individuals are not welcome in that most central of community institutions: schools. It is not just participation in sex education from which Kansas providers are barred. As Stephanie Toti, senior attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is challenging this law, told me, “This is unprecedented discrimination against abortion providers….The prohibition on providers serving as ‘agents’ of a school district has the effect of barring them from serving as chaperones on field trips and engaging in most other volunteer activities.”

The prohibition on providers serving as ‘agents’ of a school district has the effect of barring them from serving as chaperones on field trips and engaging in most other volunteer activities.

So abortion providers are at this moment banned from Kansas schools—and, as the typical sanctimonious rationalization of the various laws we are seeing goes, this will supposedly promote the safety of adult women getting abortions.

I asked several lawyer colleagues if they knew of other instances in which a whole occupational category was banned by law from volunteering in schools. They did not. Indeed, as far as I can tell, only sex offenders as a class are de facto banned from school grounds.

This shocking ban on abortion providers’ involvement in the schools leads me to recollect other instances I have encountered of attempts to isolate this group and keep them from community involvement. I think of a provider I’ve written about who I call Bill Swinton (not his real name), a family medicine doctor in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. He was deeply involved in both his church and his community, serving for three terms on the local school board. But he was defeated for a fourth term in the late 1980s as the abortion wars intensified; needless to say, his status as a provider was the key factor in his defeat. I think as well of another doctor I’ve written about named Susan Golden (also not her real name), in a town in the Midwest, who integrated abortion provision into her family medicine practice. When she and her partner planned to take part in a community health fair, presenting on the care of newborns, the entire event was abruptly cancelled by the anti-abortion owner of the facility where the fair had been scheduled to take place.

As disturbing as these incidents were, they did not have the force, or the legitimization, of law. The Kansas provision does—and therefore takes the stigmatization of abortion providers to a new level.

Assuming the Kansas law, including this provision, is not overturned, we can only speculate as to what effects it might have. Speaking personally, I remember as a child the enormous pride I felt when my father, a cardiologist, came to my elementary school with his microscope and showed the class wondrous things. As a working mother, I recall how much I valued occasional volunteer stints in my daughters’ schools, getting to know both their classmates and other parents. It is very disturbing to contemplate that providers and their children will be deprived of these experiences. And it is equally disturbing to contemplate the messages that others in the community will receive from such a ban. This provision truly is stigma on steroids.


Carole Joffe is a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, and her most recent book is Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients and the Rest of Us. This post originally appeared at RH Reality Check.


Lima