Abortion foes energized by their losses

Times Staff Writer

Abortion-rights activists woke up Wednesday to a string of election day victories:

South Dakota rejected a ban on virtually all abortions. In California and Oregon, voters turned back parental notification. Anti-abortion senators in Ohio and Missouri and congressmen in Arizona and Pennsylvania lost their seats to abortion-rights supporters. Kansas’ ardently anti-abortion attorney general, Phill Kline, was soundly defeated.

“It’s amazing,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But she had little time to savor the triumph.

Drawing motivation from their defeats, anti-abortion activists are already working on new ways to reduce access to abortion and persuade more women to go through with unwanted pregnancies.

“We’re going back to the drawing board to see where we can make inroads,” said Troy Newman, who leads the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.


One top goal is to expand or rewrite “informed consent” laws. At least two dozen states require clinics to counsel women before an abortion. Often, however, the counseling is cursory, delivered by a phone call or pamphlet.

Antiabortion forces are pressing for more emotional counseling. They want women to be told that the fetus can feel pain, although that’s hotly disputed. They also want women to hear that abortion ends the life of a “unique human being.” (A federal appeals court recently struck down such a requirement in South Dakota, but activists nonetheless plan to promote it in other states, according to Daniel McConchie, vice president of Americans United for Life.)

Most of all, anti-abortion activists hope to require women to see a 3-D ultrasound of their fetus.

“It gives women a window into the womb,” said Richard Duncan, a law professor at the University of Nebraska who advises anti-abortion groups. “You’re saying: ‘Here’s the fetus you’re thinking of aborting. Make up your mind based on this.’ ”

So far, no state has required ultrasounds; it’s unclear if such a law would pass constitutional muster. The U.S. Supreme Court has said states cannot impose an “undue burden” on women seeking early and midterm abortions, before the fetus is viable. An ultrasound could be considered a burden because it would add cost to the procedure.

In addition to counseling mandates, activists are pressing for tighter regulation of abortion clinics.


Today in South Dakota’s Capitol, for instance, lawmakers will discuss 18 pages of clinic regulations, which govern even the type of sink in the patient recovery room and require regular audits by state inspectors. Kate Looby, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, said the regulations are not onerous, but she’s worried they could be modified to clamp down on clinics in the future.

“I think this is their Plan B,” she said.

In fact, conservative lawmakers here haven’t entirely written off Plan A.

Abortion-rights backers gained just one seat in the state Legislature on Tuesday. The most prominent supporters of the abortion ban were reelected; they retain a large majority in both houses and the support of Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, who easily won reelection.

“I’ll support a move to start over on this,” said Republican state Sen. Bill Napoli, who called voters’ rejection of the ban by a 56% to 44% margin “a moot point.”

Napoli said the vote proved only that South Dakotans want any ban to include exceptions for rape, incest or imminent danger to the mother’s health. But such cases amount to just a handful of the 800 abortions performed annually in South Dakota. Napoli expects the Legislature to write a new ban -- with a few tightly worded exceptions -- aimed at criminalizing “abortions performed just for convenience.”

The Supreme Court has never permitted a ban with such narrow exceptions, but Napoli’s goal would be to provoke a court case that would prompt the justices to reconsider.

As volunteers swept up confetti and popped pink and blue balloons that had been meant for a victory party, Leslee Unruh, who managed the pro-ban campaign, said she wasn’t ready to give up, either. Her core volunteers have already rented new office space to carry on the fight.


“Women have been coming in all day long saying: ‘We’re not quitting. What can we do next?’ ” Unruh said. “We’re not going away.”

Such fervor does not surprise political scientist Alan Abramowitz. The South Dakota vote discredited what he called “the blunt-force strategy” of a total ban. But anti-abortion activists will come back with indirect approaches, said Abramowitz, an abortion-rights supporter who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta.

“I wouldn’t necessarily think that this debate is over,” Abramowitz said. “We can expect to see a lot more of it.”