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Abortion battle rages in state legislatures

By Michael Martinez and Moni Basu, CNN
  • An unprecedented number of bills aim to restrict abortions
  • Abortion rights activists see "hostility" in the proliferation of legislation
  • One abortion opponent says the trend reflects "a change in public opinion"
  • The passage of laws could mean a legal showdown, says one scholar

(CNN) -- The battle over a hot-button issue has been raging in state legislatures across the country this year with an unprecedented number of bills aimed at restricting abortions.

An advocacy group published a study this week contending that "hostility" toward abortion rights is on the rise.

"It's pretty much an all-out, anti-abortion free-for-all out there," said Elizabeth Nash, public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute.

"I've been doing this for almost 12 years now, so I feel like I have some historical sense. This year is just unlike any other year we've seen before."

Anti-abortion activists took issue with the term "hostility." Nonetheless, they hailed the rising tide in their favor as a necessary correction in the nation's moral barometer.

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Consider that 374 anti-abortion bills were introduced in state legislatures this year, 200 more than last year, said Ted Miller, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Of those, 61 bills in 25 states focus on prohibiting health insurance coverage for abortions. Another 20 in 10 states make ultrasounds mandatory before abortions.

And just this week, Kansas became the second state in the nation, after Nebraska, to sign a "fetal pain" law that bans abortions after 21 weeks based on the premise that "fetuses can feel pain beginning after the 21st week of pregnancy," according to a statement by Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's office.

Brownback also signed into law Tuesday a bill requiring minors who seek abortions to obtain consent from both parents. The law places certain prohibitions on late-term abortions.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed a bill banning state tax credits for donations to Planned Parenthood or other abortion providers.

The law also prohibits public funding for abortion training at universities and hospitals for physicians, said state Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Republican who was the prime sponsor of the new laws.

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The trend bodes well for Lila Rose, a 22-year-old anti-abortion activist.

"It reflects the growing change in public opinion," said Rose, president of Live Action.

"Americans are becomingly increasingly convinced that it's time to take a stand and make sure our legal system protects the weakest members of our society, which is the unborn child."

It's a trend buoyed by Republican victories in last year's elections, as well as how federal health care reform encouraged states to adopt their own laws regarding insurance coverage for abortion, Nash said.

This year, 29 states are headed by governors who are anti-abortion. And 15 states have anti-abortion majorities in both chambers of the legislature as well as a governor who opposes abortion -- states that have, in Miller's terms, "no firewall" anymore.

Abortion rights proponents are "totally worried," Miller said.

Anti-abortion sentiment remains very strong in America, said Neil Siegel, a Duke University constitutional lawyer and former Supreme Court clerk. Look at the debate over health care reform or even the budget impasse last week, he said. Both fights involved funding for abortions.

"In the Republican Party, I think the political will is there to pass these laws," Siegel said.

With them will come as many legal challenges, he said, and ultimately a legal showdown that will take abortion back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The most important question is how the court is constituted when this happens," he said.

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Lesko, the Arizona lawmaker, characterized the debate as passionate.

"I certainly wouldn't say there's hostility," Lesko said. "I think it's a severe word. I think it's passionate. Pro-life people are passionate about what they believe in. They believe that the fetus is a human, and they do not believe it should be killed."

Brownback called his signing of this week's two abortion restrictions "an historic day."

"So many determined people have worked long and hard to get these bills passed and I am happy to sign them into law," he said in a statement.

"These bills are a reflection of the culture of life that is being embraced all across Kansas. They represent a mainstream, bipartisan and common-sense approach to a divisive issue."

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Sixteen other states are now considering a law patterned after Nebraska's law, one of the most stringent abortion restrictions in recent years, according to a Guttmacher report this week.

In those 16 states plus Kansas, a total of 35 proposals were introduced, and 27 of them paralleled Nebraska's abortion ban beginning at 20 weeks. Two would ban abortion beginning at 18 weeks, and the other six would restrict abortion after 22 weeks, according to the Guttmacher report.

Twenty-nine of the bills allow "the extremely narrow health exception included in the Nebraska law," according to the Guttmacher report. The other six measures would permit "a slightly broader exception," typically permitting abortion where the woman's mental health is threatened.

The states seeking laws mirroring Nebraska's are Idaho, Indiana, Iowa and Oklahoma, where at least one legislative chamber in those states has passed a similar measure, said Nash, the Guttmacher Institute associate.

"They want to ban abortion in any way they can. If they can do it at 20 weeks, they will do it at 20 weeks," Nash said. "There are other scientific reports that say fetuses cannot feel pain at 20 weeks.

"It flies in the face of Supreme Court holdings," she said. "What's different about these bans is that they are much earlier than viability, which tends to be between 24 and 28 weeks."

Siegel, the constitutional scholar, said abortion rights activists have reason to be concerned. The fight is not about making adjustments on the margin, he said. "The end game is very clearly about overruling the (Supreme) Court's decision," Siegel said. "It's about, 'How do we end legalized abortion in America?' "