Abortion restrictions gain steam in the states

Posted on April 25, 2012

USA Today, April 25, 2012 by Chuck Raasch

New restrictions on abortion are sweeping through legislatures from Virginia to Arizona, and voters in some states could see proposed constitutional amendments on November ballots that would define life as beginning at conception.

The 2012 anti-abortion push is not as heavy as last year, when legislators in 24 states, many elected in the 2010 Republican tide, passed a record 92 laws restricting abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a group that conducts sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education.

The abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America is tracking 235 bills in legislatures that it says would restrict abortion. The group says a dozen have passed so far this year.

Some proposals would put new restrictions on when women can have abortions. Some would prevent insurance coverage of abortions. Some are aimed at funding or activities of the reproductive health organization Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions as one of a broad array of women’s health services.

“We are still feeling the ramifications of the 2010 election and what happened in 2011,” says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for Guttmacher.

Ten major court challenges in seven states are underway against some of the new laws, and they may take four or five years to resolve, Nash says. A Texas law requiring women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound was upheld in a court challenge.

Abortion opponents feel emboldened.

“Ohioans are fed up with regulating abortion. They want to end it,” says Patrick Johnston, a family physician from Zanesville who is leading a petition drive to get a “personhood” amendment on November’s state ballot.

Abortion opponents have tried to stay on the offensive since Mississippi voters in November rejected a constitutional amendment declaring that life begins at conception. Dubbed “personhood,” the amendment would have virtually guaranteed a legal challenge to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Abortion rights advocates saw the results from one of the nation’s most socially conservative states as vivid evidence of a backlash.

“What happened in Mississippi is a clear sign when voters see how extreme these measures are and see the effect on women they have, they overwhelmingly object to them,” says Ted Miller, director of communications for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Abortion opponents are divided on strategy. Some, including Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, want to focus on legislative and court fights and to coalesce around Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Others, including Johnston, have refused to endorse Romney, citing his past support for abortion rights, and believe the ballot is a prime battleground to end abortion.

Nowhere is this division more evident than in Ohio, where Ohio Right to Life is pressing legislators to eliminate Planned Parenthood funding and outlaw abortions of fetuses that have detectable heartbeats. Johnston has criticized the latter idea as not going far enough.

“We have seen more anti-abortion legislation in this general assembly than any time that I can remember,” said Sandy Theis, spokeswoman for Healthy Families Ohio, a coalition that opposes the proposed “personhood” amendment.

Getting the required 385,000 signatures by a July 4 deadline will be a challenge. And Ohio Right to Life is not helping. Mike Gonidakis, the group’s president, says he fears abortion opponents would get “outspent by Hollywood” and abortion rights advocates in high-profile ballot fights, so he is concentrating on legislative fights and electing more anti-abortion legislators.

Colorado-based Personhood USA is helping local efforts to gather signatures to put constitutional amendments on ballots in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Ohio and Oklahoma, says Keith Mason, the organization’s president.

He says he’s not deterred by last fall’s 16-percentage-point rejection in Mississippi or by two previous lopsided losses in Colorado in 2008 and 2010. He says that 40,000 people signed up online to support his group’s efforts the day after the Mississippi vote.

Among abortion restrictions passed this year:

Arizona prohibits abortion after 20 weeks, following similar legislation passed last year in Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Virginia requires women seeking an abortion to have an abdominal ultrasound.

Wisconsin requires doctors intending to prescribe a drug that medically induces abortion to examine the woman in person and be in the room when the drug is administered. It was aimed at what Tobias calls “webcam abortions.”

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin President Teri Huyck calls the law vague and “an unneeded and unprecedented burden on Wisconsin physicians and women.” Six states passed similar legislation last year.