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GOP is playing long game on abortion rights

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stand together before the start of the Univision-Washington Post Democratic presidential debate at Miami Dade College on Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Miami. Credit: AP / Wilfredo Lee

Even as the Democratic presidential candidates prepped in Miami Wednesday for their debate, state legislators to the north in Tallahassee were passing new restrictions on Florida clinics that perform abortions.

The legislature’s vote seemed to be lost on the three journalists asking questions, none of whom mentioned it. Thank goodness for Joshua Dansby, a law student from Washington, D.C., who submitted a question on Facebook for the candidates. He wanted to know what the Democratic presidential candidates would look for in a Supreme Court justice.

Hillary Clinton said she would look for people who believe that Roe v. Wade is settled law and that Citizens United needs to be overturned as quickly as possible. Then the panel cut to commercials without asking Sen. Bernie Sanders to respond. Sanders has said elsewhere that he, too, would nominate a justice who would overturn the disastrous lifting of limits on third-party campaign spending.

Small matter to the interviewers, I guess, having one Republican legislature after another ban abortion through these backdoor restrictions on clinics. Just like in Texas, the Florida law would require doctors at these clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and for the clinics to be fitted as mini-hospitals, even when they dispense pills, which are nonsurgical.

The effect in Texas has been to reduce 41 clinics in 2012 to 17 today. The average Texas county is 111 miles from the nearest clinic, and the U.S. Supreme Court just heard arguments last week about whether this makes abortion a practical impossibility for many Texas women — either because they can’t travel or afford the trip, or because they can’t get an appointment at overbooked clinics.

If the Supreme Court splits 4-4 on the Texas case, the law will stand — and so may those in Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, Wisconsin and many other states.

Our Democratic presidential candidates, who say they are pro-abortion rights, should be making more of an issue of this de facto loss in many places of the right to terminate a pregnancy.

Because women are suffering. A November paper from a group called the Texas Policy Evaluation Project — a collaboration among researchers at the University of Texas, the University of California-San Francisco, Ibis Reproductive Health and the University of Alabama-Birmingham — found that between 100,000 and 240,000 Texas women have tried to end a pregnancy on their own without medical assistance.

That exposes the lie that many state legislators tell, that tightening the rules at abortion clinics is meant to protect women’s health. Better a procedure in a clinic with medical professionals than one of these methods that are turning up in Google searches: abortion by herbs like parsley or vitamin C, coat hangers, bleaching one’s uterus or punching one’s stomach. In 2015, there were more than 700,000 searches looking for self-induced abortions. Searches have skyrocketed since 2011, when states began abortion crackdowns.

The human misery implicit in those searches is devastating.

Democrats, whose party stands for a woman’s right to choose, should cry out with more force. They should be working to win back state legislatures; Republicans control both chambers in 30 states. The GOP was smart to soften its emphasis on overturning Roe v. Wade in court, and to focus instead on winning legislative races.

Abortion foes have been playing the long game, with foresight about the power they would gain in state legislatures. It’s time the forces for choice learned to think long-term, too.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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