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Abortion fights loom in states

Abortion fights loom in states
© Greg Nash

Both sides of the abortion rights debate are preparing for a busy year of fights over when and how abortions may be performed in states across the country — and both sides are developing a long-term strategy that could involve a new challenge to Roe v. Wade.

While it is still early in the year, several measures seeking to limit abortion rights have already advanced in Republican-dominated states.

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Mississippi’s state House passed a bill on Friday that would ban abortions more than 15 weeks after conception, a bill that would amount to the strictest limit in any state. Twenty other states ban abortions more than 20 weeks after conception, and Missouri’s state legislature will consider a similar bill this month.

Other states are likely to take up bills aimed at banning abortions on the basis of fetal anomalies such as Down syndrome. Bills to ban those procedures have been introduced in Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Utah — all states where Republicans hold control of both legislative chambers.

West Virginia’s legislature heard testimony this week on a bill that would eliminate Medicaid funding for medically necessary abortions, except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger.

The South Dakota state Senate is likely to begin debate on a bill that would require oral and written statements be given to any woman seeking an abortion. And Ohio’s legislature is likely to take up a ban on intact dilation and extraction abortions, a procedure that abortion rights opponents deride as “dismemberment.”

On the other side of the debate, the California state Senate has already passed a bill that would require state colleges and universities to provide medication-induced abortions.

Opponents of abortion rights say conservative states are searching for opportunities to restrict those rights that will withstand court challenges.

“States continue to search, up against Roe v. Wade, where they can put their big toe and have an impact, what jurisdiction they can find to try to put limits on abortion,” said Sue Swayze, the National Pro-Life Women’s Caucus coordinator for the Susan B. Anthony List, which backs candidates who oppose abortion rights.

But supporters of abortion rights say they are seeing a new wave of legislation that would proactively protect those rights. Eighty-nine bills supporting abortion rights in one form or another have been introduced this year in 25 state legislatures, according to the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute. Some observers believe the explosion of pro-abortion rights legislation stems from years in which Republicans made big legislative gains.

“The bills are a reaction to all of the abortion restrictions that have been moving, but also it is a reflection of the fact that there is a lot more energy around progressive causes such as abortion rights,” said Elizabeth Nash, the institute’s senior state issues manager. “We’re seeing pushback against social conservatives right now.”

Some blue states are racing to codify rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. In the last few years, states such as Oregon and Delaware have guaranteed a woman’s right to seek an abortion.

This year, the Rhode Island legislature is debating whether to remove old and obsolete anti-abortion language from state code — language that required spousal notice to receive an abortion and that declares that life begins at conception.

The Rhode Island effort underscores a deeper fear among abortion rights supporters. Those laws still on the books were made moot by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, but they could come back into effect if Roe is somehow overturned. Abortion rights backers see conservative efforts to stem those rights as a chance to mount a new challenge meant to be heard by the Supreme Court.

“There is a real interest in some state legislatures to enact a law that will be a direct challenge to Roe,” Nash said. “It takes several years for a case to make it to the Supreme Court, and so in the intervening time the composition of the court could change.”

Swayze, the top Susan B. Anthony List official, said her opponents on the pro-abortion rights side have had more success in courts than in legislatures in recent years. She said state efforts to advance new restrictions are part of a broader campaign to find out just how far courts are willing to allow states to go.

“States are looking for, until Roe v. Wade gets changed or challenged correctly or something happens there, how much jurisdiction do I have? How far can I go to regulate these things?” she said. “That at some point becomes a legal strategy.”

The debate over abortion rights comes against a backdrop of rapidly falling abortion rates, though the two sides disagree on the causes behind the decline.

Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found 652,000 abortions were conducted in 46 states in 2014, the last year for which data is available. That was the fewest number of abortions conducted since the high court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

The CDC found teen pregnancies had dropped 55 percent between 1990 and 2011, and early data suggests that number has fallen even more in recent years.

The Guttmacher Institute, which collects data from all 50 states, pegged the number of abortions in 2011 at 926,000. That is far below the 1.6 million abortions performed in 1990.

“People are choosing less frequently to be parents, and women who are pregnant are choosing less frequently to abort the baby,” James Studnicki, vice president of statistics at the anti-abortion rights Charlotte Lozier Institute, told The Hill last year.

Nash said both increased use of contraception and the decreasing availability of abortion services in some states are behind the declining abortion rates.

“By limiting access in that way and not doing anything to reduce the need for an abortion, it’s quite conceivable that fewer abortions are a result of less access,” Nash said. Much of the recent decline, she added, “had to do with the use of contraception and reduction in the overall [rate of] unintended pregnancy.”