Politico: Anti-abortion push gains momentum

This article originally appeared online at Politico.com on December 14, 2010

Anti-abortion push gains momentum
By: Sarah Kliff

After serving four years in a Democratic-controlled Legislature, Iowa state GOP Rep. Matt Windschitl had become accustomed to his anti-abortion legislation languishing in committee.

But that all changed in November, when the Iowa House and the governor’s seat both flipped Republican. The Senate remains in Democratic control but with significantly tighter margins, all of which has Windschitl thinking that his bill banning late-term abortion, which he plans to introduce next year, has a fighting chance at passing.

“There’s a great deal of opportunity now that I’ve never seen before,” Windschitl told POLITICO in an interview.

Windschitl isn’t the only one sensing a sea change: Massive gains in statehouses and a promising new rhetorical strategy have anti-abortion advocates predicting a banner year — and abortion rights supporters bracing for the challenge.

The number of anti-abortion governors rose from 21 to 29 in the past election, according to a NARAL Pro-Choice America analysis, previewed exclusively to POLITICO and set to be released early next month. The number of states with fully anti-abortion governments — where the governor and the legislature find themselves on the same side of the issue — increased from 10 to 15.

“We did see, as a result of the election, a significant change in the composition of statehouses,” said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Our state affiliates are definitely expecting to be in for the fight of their lives.”

They have reason to worry:  Anti-abortion advocates are planning an aggressive strategy at both the state and the federal level. At a National Right to Life Committee state strategy conference last week — hastily convened after activists realized the extent of their legislative gains — the anti-abortion lobby announced it would focus on three model laws that have already seen some success on the ground.

“This is the strongest position we’ve seen in a long time for passing these much-needed bills,” NRLC Executive Director David O’Steen told conference attendees.

The “flagship” law, as NRLC state Policy Director Mary Spaulding Balch describes it, is a late-term-abortion ban that rests on the premise that the fetus can experience pain after 20 weeks’ gestation. The rhetorically potent language of fetal pain mirrors that of the anti-abortion lobby’s last major victory: the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which outlawed a particular abortion procedure.

Nebraska passed the first “fetal pain” abortion ban in April, a direct affront to late-term-abortion provider LeRoy Carhart’s Omaha-based practice.

Abortion rights advocates contend that the law is unconstitutional because it bans abortion prior to viability. The law has the potential to restrict abortions after genetic tests such as amniocentesis, which is generally performed in the 15th to 20th week of pregnancy.

But while multiple abortion rights groups indicated they expected the law would be immediately challenged as unconstitutional, it has remained uncontested since becoming effective Oct. 15. The law has caused Carhart to close his Omaha practice and reopen it in Iowa and Maryland.

“We are looking for the right case and will file a challenge when the circumstances are appropriate,” Dionne Scott, a spokeswoman for the Center for Reproductive Rights, wrote in e-mail. Scott declined to comment on why the group has not challenged the Nebraska law because the center does not discuss legal strategies of specific cases.

Alongside the fetal pain legislation, advocates see two other paths forward: pushing laws that would require an ultrasound to be shown to the patient prior to an abortion, similar to an Oklahoma law, as well as bills that would bar insurance coverage of abortion in the health insurance exchanges that come online in 2014.

At the federal level, anti-abortion groups see a strong advocate in Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), who will chair Energy and Commerce’s Health Subcommittee next year. A noted anti-abortion legislator, Pitts co-authored Michigan Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak’s strong abortion restrictions that nearly brought down the health reform law.

“Americans don’t want their tax dollars funding abortions,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, which lobbied aggressively for Pitts’s subcommittee chairmanship. “We saw that during the health care debate, and I think we see a lot of ways to move forward on that issue in the next Congress.”

Federally, activists will push for a permanent Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortion-related activities and must currently be renewed yearly. They’re also eyeing legislation introduced by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) that would defund Planned Parenthood.

Abortion rights advocates say that Republican legislators would be misguided to focus their agenda on social issues in a year when the economy and unemployment dominated the conversation. “The dominant issue of this election was clearly jobs and [the] economy,” said Rachel Sussman, who specializes in state-level policy for Planned Parenthood. “If they see legislators spending all their time on restricting reproductive health, I think they are going to be disappointed. It’s a misguided strategy.”

Windschitl recognizes the possible peril of straying too far from economic issues but says that the Iowa Legislature can balance both issues. He believes the abortion issue will take on particular urgency now that Carhart, chased out of Nebraska by its ban on late-term abortion, has begun practicing in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

“When we went out and campaigned, we talked about jobs and [the] economy, and that was the overwhelming message,” said Windschitl. “But that doesn’t mean we throw the social issues overboard. The late-term-abortion issue is going to come up, particularly here in Iowa, and we’re not going to be shy about addressing that.”

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