Abortion foes on offense in states after GOP wave

Abortion foes on offense in states after GOP wave
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AUSTIN, Texas — The Republican wave that swept over states across the country last November has put abortion rights proponents on a back foot, as abortion foes have passed about 50 new restrictions on access and expanded waiting periods and consent measures in state legislative chambers this year alone.

“We are seeing a heavy level of activity around abortion restrictions,” said Elizabeth Nash, who runs state-level programs at the Guttmacher Institute, which backs abortion rights.

The Texas Senate gave final approval this week to two new measures aimed at reducing the number of abortions performed in the state. One measure would require physicians performing abortions to report any complications to the state health commission. Another would require physicians to report information about minors who obtain abortions.

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In Missouri, legislators signed off Tuesday on a measure that would require doctors to detail possible medical complications to women three full days before they obtain an abortion.

The bill would also allow Missouri’s attorney general to prosecute any violations of state abortion laws. Currently only local prosecutors are allowed to bring charges.

The Texas legislation now heads to the state House, where Republicans in charge have expressed skepticism. The Missouri legislation will go to Gov. Eric Greitens (R), who earlier this year became the first governor in history to call a special session specifically to deal with abortion restriction legislation.

Those states join an array of legislators in other Republican-led states who have passed new laws aimed at limiting abortions in just the past few months. Anti-abortion advocates say the new measures are part of a long-term strategy to restrict the number of procedures performed every year — a strategy some hope will lead all the way to the Supreme Court.

“This year’s series of sessions have been very sure and steady for the pro-life movement, bolstered by state leadership changes in some states. Some states now have a pathway to do more pro-life activities,” said Sue Swayze, director of the National Pro-Life Women’s Caucus. “There’s an uptick in activity.”

Legislators in Ohio, Iowa, South Dakota and Montana passed new laws banning abortions after 20 weeks. Tennessee passed a similar law, though in a different form. Abortion opponents say they expect similar measures to come up next year in Virginia and Missouri.

Texas and Arkansas banned a common procedure for abortions conducted in the second trimester, known as dilation and evacuation. Six other states have banned the practice over the last two years.

Ten states ban abortions conducted solely because of the gender of the fetus. This year, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio banned abortions sought because of a fetus’s characteristics. The Oklahoma law currently faces a court challenge.

Lawmakers in Indiana, West Virginia and Kansas placed new restrictions on minors seeking abortions, requiring parental consent before those procedures can take place. Oklahoma and Ohio legislators passed new laws to give fathers a say in whether abortions can be performed.

Some abortion opponents want to see new laws that test the limits of current abortion laws. President Trump has said he will appoint anti-abortion justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, which gives those abortion foes hope that the seminal Roe v. Wade decision will be overturned.

“We’d like to see a life at conception bill, a heartbeat bill, something to challenge Roe v. Wade,” Bob Vander Plaats, a leading abortion opponent in Iowa, told The Hill in April.

Others in the anti-abortion community are wary of moving too fast, even with new Justice Neil Gorsuch on the high court.

“There seems to be a movement afoot to get those bills passed and try to get them up through the courts. On the one hand, that’s an exciting proposition. On the other hand, it’s dubious until such time there’s another Gorsuch or two,” Swayze said. “It may be a little too soon for that.”

Abortion rights supporters are beginning to push back. Thousands of protesters showed up in Utah as legislators considered new restrictions earlier this year. Last week, hundreds protested outside the Texas state Capitol against the measures that passed the Senate.

In blue states, Democrats have advanced measures to protect access to abortion in the event of a new ruling from the Supreme Court. Delaware lawmakers codified the rights granted under the Roe v. Wade decision earlier this year, and a similar measure is working its way through New York’s legislature.

“We have seen over the past four years efforts to introduce legislation to protect abortion access, but that legislation doesn’t receive the same level of attention” as laws blocking access, Nash said.

In Illinois, lawmakers passed a measure to protect abortion access in the state’s Medicaid program and through the state employee health insurance plan. Oregon lawmakers expanded access to reproductive health coverage through state-run health plans.

Other Democrats say they will introduce new bills to protect the right to an abortion in coming sessions. At a conference earlier this month in Washington, legislators from 27 states pledged to drop bills next year.

And those abortion rights proponents are keenly aware of the threat at the federal level.

“It is not simply enough to defend against the relentless attacks on women’s rights that we’ve seen,” said Rebekah Warren, a Democratic state senator in Michigan. “We need to put forward policies that expand access to the full range of services and mobilize the support we know is out there for such policies.”

The number of abortions that occur in the United States has declined by about 50 percent since peaking in 1990, according to the Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Abortions have fallen in both states with broad restrictions on access and in those that have more liberal access laws. Restrictions contribute to the falling number of abortions, but so do more proactive actions like sex education and more robust reproductive health programs, Nash said.

“In states that have typically publicly supported abortion access or had laws in place that don’t impede access, you’re also seeing states that support health in other ways,” Nash said. “You may be seeing a decline in part because there are other programs in place to help women time and space pregnancies.”