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Bills restricting abortion rights, trans rights are 'inextricably linked,' advocates say

Some are urging advocates of both causes to join forces against a “conservative campaign of control.”
Image: Abortion rights demonstrators march to the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's home in Chevy Chase, Md., on Sept. 13, 2021.
Abortion rights demonstrators march to the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in Chevy Chase, Md., on Monday.Jose Luis Magana / AP file

The Supreme Court allowed a Texas law to go into effect this month that bans abortions after six weeks of gestation.   

In the recent legislative session, Texas lawmakers introduced a slew of bills that sought to limit transgender people’s bathroom access and prohibit changes to birth certificates. Many of the bills take aim at young trans people’s access to health care and participation in high school sports. Similar bills have been introduced in at least 19 other states.

Though seemingly unrelated, some LGBTQ rights advocates and abortion rights advocates see parallels.

“The barrage of policy attacks on transgender youth flows from the same hateful, coercive ideology spurring on attacks against abortion rights and voting rights. These attacks on personal liberties are not — and have never been — happening in a vacuum, but rather each as part of a conservative campaign of control,” Ruth Dawson, principal policy associate for the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research group, told NBC News in an email. “LGBTQ justice and sexual and reproductive health care are inextricably linked, because they both involve individuals’ autonomy in their most intimate decisions.” 

'A coordinated attack'

Abortion rights advocates and LGBTQ advocates pointed out similarities among recently introduced bills. 

“The bills themselves share the same kind of idea. They are really restrictive infringements on bodily autonomy, on individual rights and the state taking an aggressive, moralizing police role,” Jules Gill-Peterson, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, said.

The bills misinterpret or misrepresent medical data, she added, and “claim to do things they don’t, like protect women and children.”

For example, Arkansas passed a law in March that bans access to gender-affirming care for transgender minors, including reversible puberty blockers and hormones. However, puberty blockers have been used for a variety of medical purposes in cisgender young people for decades, said Kara Mailman, senior research analyst at abortion-rights organization Reproaction. 

Proponents of the law argued that transition care for minors is “experimental” and that trans minors often change their minds about their genders and detransition later in life. Medical experts say neither of those claims are backed by scientific evidence.

Major medical organizations — including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Endocrine Society and the American Psychological Association — support gender-affirming care for trans minors and oppose efforts to restrict access. And research has found that access to gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers reduces the risk of suicide among trans youths. 

“So much of what they claim is dangerous is heavily tested and extremely safe,” Mailman said.   

The same groups pushing for limitations on abortion are also advocating for new laws that limit transgender people’s access to health care, Sasha Buchert, senior attorney at the LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal, said. “It’s a coordinated attack.”

Gill-Peterson agreed. “Anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation are often very similar in terms of the literal bills that come to state legislative floors. They are part of the same political strategy, and they are being funded and ghost-written by the same kinds of groups.”   

This year, the conservative organizations Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Policy Alliance partnered in an initiative, Promise to America’s Children, that opposes the Equality Act and provides lawmakers with socially conservative model legislation.

One piece of legislation listed on the site as exemplary is California’s “Protecting Children From Experimentation Act of 2021,” a bill that would criminalize providers of “gender reassignment medical interventions on minors” with up to five years in prison. 

The site invites visitors to sign a “promise” that includes “protecting” children’s minds, bodies and relationships to parents: “We believe that America’s children are the nation’s greatest resource. While a culture — and sadly, a government — around us seek to sexualize children for the sake of a political agenda, we seek to protect children and nurture their minds, bodies, and relationships,” the website states.

Among signatories to the promise are Republican lawmakers from over a dozen states.

The Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Policy Alliance did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

'Political grammar'

Proponents of laws restricting abortion and transgender rights present them to the public in a similar manner, according to Gill-Peterson. She said anti-trans bills employ the same “political grammar” tried and tested in anti-abortion politics, which is defense of “an imaginary child in danger.”

“We have seen this since the Reagan revolution,” she continued, “that the unborn child becomes the rallying cry to restrict rights.”

Texas’ new law, for example, refers to “protecting the health of the woman and the life of the unborn child” in its justification.

Gill-Peterson said the groups and politicians advocating for the bills find them to be politically expedient. “Is this a good bill for fundraising? Is it good for the base? Does it turn out the vote? Does it distract people from other issues?”

She described the manipulation of the image of the child in the anti-trans laws as “particularly cruel.”  

“This rhetoric of child protection is being used to support politics that target children for severe harm,” she said. 

For example, a bill in Texas would classify any gender-affirming care as child abuse, and a Tennessee bill would prohibit several kinds of gender-affirming care for minors, including simply talk therapy.

Nine states — eight this year — have banned trans athletes from participating on the sports teams that align with their gender identity.

The final version of Florida’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed in June, omitted requirements that transgender athletes in high schools and colleges undergo testosterone or genetic testing and submit to having their genitalia examined. 

While such legislation purports to be about child protection, Gill-Peterson said, those who are most affected by the law are the most marginalized, with already precarious access to resources.

“It’s no question that a lot of these clinics, especially Planned Parenthood, are also offering gender-affirming care services,” said D. Ojeda, a policy advocate at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “I think that is why the opposition have targeted these two issues.” 

Gill-Peterson also sees the spate of anti-trans bills as part of a more widespread political scapegoating of transgender people. 

“There is a lot more social stigma and violence directed at trans people right now,” she said. 

“Anti-trans politics is a major plank of ethnonational, authoritarian political movements around the world,” she said, citing examples from Brazil, Poland and Hungary.

In June, for instance, Hungary’s Parliament passed legislation banning content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and transgender issues.

'War of attrition' 

Alex Petrovnia, director of the TransFormations Project, said his trans rights organization is tracking at least 77 anti-trans bills, including over two dozen bills in Texas.

“We expect to see a lot more bills in 2022,” he said.  

“They are playing a war of attrition; they are unrelenting. The goal of this is to outlast people. Unless we continue to fight these, the bills will slip through, and we won’t notice,” Petrovnia said. “It’s not about one fight; it’s about 77 this year.” 

In the face of an overwhelming number of bills, some advocates and progressive academics are calling for LGBTQ rights and abortion rights groups to work together. 

“We cannot address these injustices as if they are siloed; it is crucial that we see and fight these attacks for what they are — part of a broader pattern of coercive, conservative ideology,” Guttmacher’s Dawson said.

One way to do this is to ensure the language used to describe issues is as inclusive as possible, according to Reproaction’s Mailman. 

“We’ve used women-centered language for so long,” Mailman said. “Trans people are also part of the community that has abortions. It has kept a lot of trans people from feeling at home in these abortion spaces.”

Ojeda said passage of the Equality Act would help both the trans rights and abortion rights movements.

The Equality Act is a piece of federal legislation that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in numerous arenas, including employment, housing, education, public accommodations, credit and jury service.

Ojeda said it would be “vital in combating these terrible bills at the state level,” adding that the Equality Act “would be an ultimate line of defense.”

In fact, on Wednesday, a coalition of 47 women’s rights and abortion rights groups — including NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Women’s Law Center and Time’s Up Now — announced “unequivocal support for the federal Equality Act” with a statement of solidarity. The groups also pushed back on “false claims that women’s rights groups are divided” over the legislation. 

“As women and girls continue to face discrimination and harassment that interferes with their ability to live safely and securely, and as states mount unprecedented attacks on women’s rights and the rights of transgender students, federal legislation protecting people of all genders could not be more important than it is right now. That is why we, the undersigned, express our unequivocal support for the Equality Act,” a statement issued by the groups said in part. 

Gill-Peterson said that the impending legal fight over Texas’ abortion bill is an opportunity to rethink strategy around abortion and trans rights and to think more expansively about how to ensure everyone has access to the health care they need.

“Even if we restore the previous norm around abortion access, it will not have solved the prior problems of income inequality and racial discrimination in health care” that prevent many people from accessing abortion services, Gill-Peterson said. “What would it look like for people in favor of abortion rights and in favor of trans rights to combine their visions for reproductive freedom, health care justice and racial justice?”

CORRECTION (Sept. 15, 2021, 12:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when the Supreme Court refused to block the Texas abortion bill from becoming law. It was Sept. 1, not last week.

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