NPR: Abortion Wars: Taking It To The States

This article first appeared online at NPR on July 2, 2011.

Abortion Wars: Taking It To The States
by Liz Halloran

The nation’s abortion wars, simmering but largely quiet in recent years, have begun boiling again.

Nowhere has the battle been more pitched than in Kansas, where the Legislature this session passed four anti-abortion measures and attempted to adopt strict new licensing rules that this week came within hours of closing down the state’s last abortion provider.

Late Thursday, Kansas officials agreed to license Planned Parenthood’s Overland Park surgical facility, which provides abortions, after the organization scrambled to comply with the week-old clinic rules by Friday’s deadline. That deadline was annulled Friday when a federal judge blocked the new licensing laws.

For anti-abortion groups, 2011 has been a “banner year,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, which raises money for female candidates who oppose abortion.

“The pro-life movement has been active but subterranean for awhile,” she says. “Now we have the strongest pro-life caucus in the U.S. House that I’ve ever seen, and state legislatures have changed as well.”

Statistics compiled by NARAL Pro-Choice America show that 29 governors — including Kansan Sam Brownback — now oppose abortion, up from 21 before the 2010 elections.

And 19 states have House and Senate memberships that are “solidly” opposed to abortion, up from 16 last year. Eight states have what NARAL characterizes as “solidly pro-choice” legislatures, down from 10.

Elections Matter

Hundreds of anti-abortion measures, driven by new conservative majorities in statehouses across the country, were advanced during legislative sessions that have just wrapped up.

By NARAL’s count, 470 anti-abortion measures were taken up by states in 2011 as of June 28, up from 175 in 2010.

Efforts ranged from denying funds to Planned Parenthood because some of its family planning clinics also provide abortion procedures to a bill passed this week by the Ohio House of Representatives that would prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

The Ohio effort is considered the most direct assault on the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion before a fetus is considered viable, or able to survive outside the womb.

The so-called “heartbeat bill” could ban abortions much earlier — as little as six weeks into a pregnancy, and before some women are even aware they’ve conceived, say supporters of legal abortion.

Six states have also enacted “fetal pain” laws, which restrict abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Anti-abortion activists argue that fetuses can feel pain at that point; there is currently no medical consensus about the stage of development at which fetuses experience pain.

The heartbeat and fetal pain efforts, as well as new state laws requiring abortion clinics to show women sonograms of their fetuses, are a potent new tactic advanced by the anti-abortion movement.

“There should be no mystery that our goal is the end of abortion because it’s the taking of a human life,” Dannenfelser says. “And science-based arguments are often the ones that rule the day — the measures of pain, when you can hear a heartbeat, see a sonogram.”

“These give us our best chance,” she says.

Kansas Fight

In Kansas, anti-abortion advocates used the full menu of tactics to limit access to and funding of abortion procedures.

Last session, the Legislature passed a law to eliminate Planned Parenthood’s access to federal family planning funds. It voted to prohibit insurance companies from providing abortion coverage unless it comes in a separate rider.

New State Laws On Abortion

According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 470 anti-abortion measures were taken up by states in 2011. As of June 27, NARAL tallied the following:

  • Eight states enacted laws that include some ban on insurance coverage of abortion, joining seven states that already had similar laws. A ninth measure was vetoed in Montana.
  • Five states enacted laws restricting abortion based on “fetal pain.” A sixth was vetoed in Minnesota.
  • Three states enacted new mandatory ultrasound legislation, joining 21 states that already had similar laws. One ban was vetoed in North Carolina.

It approved a measure that requires a minor seeking an abortion to provide notarized consent from both parents. And legislators agreed to a fetal pain bill, modeled after the first such measure passed last year in Nebraska.

But it was the licensing power of the state’s once-obscure Rules and Regulations Board that almost closed the doors of the last clinic providing abortions in Kansas. The state is where Dr. George Tiller, prominent abortion provider and proponent of a woman’s right to a safe and legal procedure, was shot to death while attending church two years ago.

“This is the most sustained and radical assault on health care and on women that I have seen in 35 years,” says Peter Brownlie, who heads Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

He characterized the new clinic rules as “confusing, unnecessary and burdensome.”

Brownlie said his organization received the new regulations on July 20, and was inspected by the state for compliance two days later.

The regulations included the mandatory stocking of items and medications the clinic doesn’t typically use (like activated charcoal), as well as medical equipment for the delivery of full-term babies.

“One of the most ludicrous aspects of the regulations was a host of requirements for providing emergency care to a viable newborn child,” Brownlie said. “We never do abortions after viability.”

But the clinic procured the required medications and equipment, and the activated charcoal, and obtained the license. Two other private abortion providers denied licenses asked the court to allow them to stay open while they attempted to comply; a judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the new rules until a lawsuit challenging them is settled.

“The governor of Kansas and legislative leaders in the Republican Party remain committed to eliminating access to abortion care in Kansas,” Brownlie says.

As it should be, Dannenfelser says.

“We’re right in the sweet spot with public opinion,” she says. Dannenfelser’s organization has pressed Republican presidential candidates to sign an anti-abortion pledge — a step the hopefuls except Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have taken.

Fight Continues

Outside Kansas, at least one more of the restrictive new state laws has already been blocked in court. A federal judge ruled Thursday ruled that a Planned Parenthood challenge to South Dakota’s law requiring that women seeking an abortion wait 72 hours and meet with an anti-abortion counselor would very likely succeed, and granted an injunction preventing the measure from going into effect.

The judge characterized the new law as creating a “substantial obstacle to a woman’s decision to obtain an abortion.”

In Texas, a state law that would require, as of Sept. 1, that women seeking abortions view a sonogram of the fetus has also been challenged in federal court by the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Abortion-rights advocates are also watching Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers have been attempting to tack anti-abortion amendments onto unrelated legislation.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, under attack back home by Tea Party conservatives, this week tried to add one abortion-related amendment to a Korean trade agreement. It would prohibit health organizations that provide abortion services from receiving federal family-planning money.

For now, the war continues.

“What Hatch did is beyond disturbing,” says NARAL’s Ted Miller, “and a sign of things to come.”

In the House, by NARAL’s count, there are 246 anti-abortion votes and 155 members who support legal abortion.

“This just underscores the importance of elections,” he says.

On that, he and Dannenfelser agree.

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