Energized by Republican gains in the last election and still stinging from the passage of President Obama’s healthcare overhaul, conservative lawmakers in statehouses around the country have put forward a torrent of measures aimed at restricting abortion.
The measures now under consideration in dozens of states reflect advances in technology and a political cycle that has reempowered a reliably antiabortion bloc — conservative Republicans — on the state and federal levels.
Some proposed laws, drawing upon improvements in medical imaging, seek to shorten the window during which women may have an abortion, though states may not impose restrictions in the first trimester.
Others focus on eliminating federal dollars for abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood. Even though it is illegal to use public funds for most abortions, some conservatives argue that any money given to an organization that provides abortions is subsidizing them, even if the public funds are spent on other services.
In the first three months of 2011, legislators in 49 states introduced 916 measures related to reproductive issues, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York nonprofit research organization that supports abortion rights but is viewed by both sides of the debate as providing reliable statistics on the issue.
More than half of the measures — 56% — seek to restrict abortion access. In 2010, Guttmacher said, only 38% of bills concerned with reproductive health sought to restrict abortion. (The others concern issues such as sex education, infant abandonment, stillbirth certificates and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. Few initiatives are aimed at expanding access to reproductive health services, the institute said.) Fifteen of the bills introduced this year have been enacted into law, and more than 120 others have been approved by at least one legislative chamber.
“We are always monitoring a huge number of anti-choice laws,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenges antiabortion laws. “But what we are seeing this year is some of the most extreme restrictions, and they are passing at a rather sharp clip.”
That is probably because of several factors, including the prominence of the abortion issue in last year’s healthcare debate, as well as gains by Republicans, both at the state and national level, in November’s election, advocates on both sides say.
Last week, the Republican-led U.S. House passed a measure that would revoke tax credits for insurance companies that pay for abortions under the new healthcare law, and it would also prevent women from using tax-saver accounts to pay for abortions. The proposal is not expected to survive in the Democratic-led Senate.
“The debate at the national level has a trickle-down effect and emboldens states, where it’s easier to get things done,” said Tony Perkins, a former Louisiana state legislator and president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group. “You saw a significant shift in state legislatures across the country in the midterms. It’s a response to the lurch to the left of the Obama administration.... I think it’s a good time for the pro-life movement.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 1.2 million abortions are performed in the U.S. each year, most involving women in their 20s. Six out of 10 women who get abortions already have a child.
When the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973, it said states could not put restrictions on abortion in the first trimester. After viability of the fetus (now considered to be about the 24th week), the court said, states have an interest in the “potentiality of human life” and may regulate the procedure.
In the last few years, the widespread use of ultrasound to view a fetus in the womb has inspired legislation in many states.
“When Roe vs. Wade was decided, we didn’t have such a clear window into the womb,” said John Seago, legislative director of Texas Right to Life. “That’s been absolutely crucial.”
On Thursday, the Texas House of Representatives put the final touches on an ultrasound bill that will now make its way to the desk of Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has said he will sign it.
The measure would require women seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound exam. She would also be invited to listen to the fetal heartbeat. If she declined to view the image or listen to the heartbeat, her doctor would still be required to describe the fetus’ body and organ development.
“The issue that we have, from a constitutional perspective, is the ideological intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship,” said Northup, of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “You force a woman to hear and view descriptions done for the purpose of the state trying to interfere in a very aggressive way with her decision-making.”
In Ohio, a proposed law would make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion after a doctor detected a fetal heartbeat, which can occur six or seven weeks into a pregnancy.
In South Dakota, a new law requires a woman seeking an abortion to wait three days after a mandatory, in-person counseling session with the doctor who is to perform the procedure. Providers would be required to show her the ultrasound image of the fetus.
Last year, Nebraska enacted a law that bans abortion at 20 weeks’ gestation based on the idea that a fetus feels pain at that point. (No scientific consensus exists on exactly when a fetus feels pain, though most scientists who study fetal development believe it happens later than 20 weeks. Only 1.5% of abortions take place in the 21st week or later, according to the Guttmacher Institute.)
The Nebraska law has not yet been challenged, Northup said. The Center for Reproductive Rights has sued to stop implementation of a 2010 Oklahoma law that would require a woman to undergo ultrasound and hear a detailed description of the fetus before having an abortion. That case is pending.
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood, a focus of ire for abortion foes, faces newly invigorated efforts to block its federal funding. Though the organization’s clinics perform about 330,000 abortions per year, federal money cannot be used for the procedures. Critics say that any federal money that goes to support Planned Parenthood indirectly supports its abortion services.
The Indiana Legislature recently passed an unprecedented measure that would cut off government funding for Planned Parenthood, which is the nation’s largest abortion provider as well as the largest provider of other medical services such as contraception, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and cancer screening. (Legal experts say it is unclear whether the state has the right to cut off federal funds to the organization, though the state administers the money.)
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a potential Republican presidential contender, has promised to sign the measure.
The president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana condemned the law. “Decreased birth control means more unintended pregnancy,” Betty Cockrum said in a statement. “The lawmakers have outdone themselves in contributing further to the cycle of poverty here in Indiana.”
But Perkins, of the Family Research Council, said he expected other states to follow Indiana. “There are these networks of conservative lawmakers who talk,” Perkins said. “One thing works in one state, they all jump on it.”