Lawmakers across US push for Limits On abortions

Newly energized by their success in November’s midterm elections, conservative legislators in dozens of states are mounting aggressive campaigns to limit abortions.

The lawmakers are drafting, and some have already introduced, bills that would ban most abortions at 20 weeks after conception, push women considering abortions to view a live ultrasound of the fetus, or curb insurance coverage, among other proposals.

In Florida and Kansas, legislators plan to reintroduce measures that were vetoed by previous governors but have the support of the new chief executives, like ultrasound requirements and more stringent regulation of late-term abortions.

“I call on the Legislature to bring to my desk legislation that protects the unborn, establishing a culture of life in Kansas,” Gov. Sam Brownback said last week in his first State of the State message.

“This is the best climate for passing pro-life laws in years,” said Michael Gonidakis, executive director of Ohio Right to Life, expressing a mood shared in many states. “We’ve got a pro-life governor and a brand new pro-life speaker. Our government now is pro-life from top to bottom.”

Abortion opponents plan marches in Washington and elsewhere this weekend and on Monday to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, that established a woman’s right to an abortion.

Republicans in Congress hope to strengthen measures to prevent even indirect public financing of abortions, but laws in the states have the greatest impact on access to them. Abortion opponents have been emboldened by major changes in the political landscape, with conservative Republicans making large gains.

Although social issues were often played down in the campaigns, many of the newly elected governors and legislators are also solidly anti-abortion, causing advocates of abortion rights to brace for a year of even tougher battles than usual.

The biggest shift is in the state capitols, with 29 governors now considered to be solidly anti-abortion, compared with 21 last year.

“This is worrisome because the governors have been the firewall, they’ve vetoed a lot of bad anti-choice legislation,” said Ted Miller, a spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In 15 states, compared with 10 last year, both the legislature and the governor are anti-abortion, according to a new report by NARAL, and those joining this category include larger states like Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as Georgia and Oklahoma. Maine and Pennsylvania are now strongly anti-abortion as well, if not quite as solidly.

Just which measures will pass is impossible to predict, particularly because so many states are bogged down by budget crises.

Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state policies on abortion for the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization, said that while states would be preoccupied with budget issues, it appeared rather likely that more measures would pass this year than in 2010, which anti-abortion advocates considered a banner year, with more than 30 restrictive laws adopted in at least nine states.

The November elections brought even more gains for their side than they had expected, said Mary Spaulding Balch, state policy director of the National Right to Life Committee, leading her group to call in its affiliates for a special strategy session on Dec. 7.

While many anti-abortion measures have been adopted or debated over the years, including requiring parental consent for minors and waiting periods, advocates have set a few top priorities for the months ahead:

  • Banning abortions earlier in pregnancy. Most states place restrictions on later abortions, often defined as after fetal viability, or around 22 to 26 weeks after conception. But last year, Nebraska set what many advocates consider a new gold standard, banning abortions, unless there is imminent danger to the woman’s life or physical health, at 20 weeks after conception, on a disputed theory that the fetus can feel pain at that point. The measure has not been tested in court, but similar measures pushing back the permissible timing are being developed in Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and other states.
  • The 20-week law in Nebraska, which took effect in October, forced a prominent doctor who performed late-term abortions to leave the state. Jill June, president of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said women suffering from complicated pregnancies but are not yet sick enough to qualify for an emergency abortion would be forced to travel to other states. Or, she said, doctors fearing prosecution will wait until such women become dangerously ill before considering an abortion.
  • Pressing women to view ultrasounds. While several states encourage women seeking abortions to view an ultrasound, Oklahoma last year adopted a requirement that doctors or technicians perform the procedure with the screen visible to the woman, and explain in detail what she is seeing.

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