The red-state drive to ban or severely limit access to abortion this year has sparked the opposite reaction in Democratic-led states, where lawmakers are cementing abortion rights and making it more accessible.
Driving the moves on both sides is the rightward shift of the US Supreme Court, which is fanning fears on the left that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in the US could be gutted or overturned altogether.
Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont are leading the charge to enshrine abortion rights at the state level. Last week, Illinois became the third state to ensure abortion remains legal even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, following Vermont days earlier and New York at the beginning of the year.
These come as Alabama and others have gone the other way by passing laws that effectively ban the procedure.
“We weren’t seeing bills moving for months until so many abortion bans got passed that blue states started to feel the pressure,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports abortion rights.
All the activity has brought abortion to the forefront of the 2020 presidential election, with several Democratic candidates – including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey – promising to defend Roe. Twenty have said that they will participate in a Planned Parenthood Action Fund forum on Saturday in South Carolina.
President Donald Trump is also seizing on state moves on abortion, doubling down on his pro-life stance during his campaign kickoff speech on Tuesday. He cited a failed attempt to loosen late-term abortion rules in Virginia earlier this year.
“Trump is making it a core of his campaign,” said Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. “He will use what’s happened at the state level to motivate and mobilize voters.”
The highest-profile change in state abortion laws took place in Alabama last month, which adopted the nation’s most restrictive rules so far. Doctors who perform abortions face criminal charges with life sentences, and the law doesn’t make exceptions in cases of rape and incest. The ultra-conservative stance even drew objections from some prominent pro-life Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said it went too far.
Louisiana and Missouri soon followed with bans on abortion after six weeks and eight weeks, respectively. Those brought the total number of bans – including multiple “heartbeat” bills, which would ban the procedure if a fetal heartbeat is detected – in 2019 to 26 across 12 states, according to Guttmacher.
Much of this activity is designed to generate legal challenges that will reach the US Supreme Court. Conservatives now dominate the court with the Trump appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
“Many Americans, myself included, disagreed when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973,” said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, in a statement when she signed her state’s bill into law. “The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the US Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.”
All these moves prompted some Democratic-led states to strengthen their protections.
In addition to enshrining the right to have an abortion, Illinois also requires health insurers to cover the procedure and expands the number of providers by allowing certain nurses and physician assistants to perform abortions.
“The Reproductive Health Act ensures that women’s rights in Illinois do not hinge on the fate of Roe v. Wade, or the whims of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. In this state, women will always have the right to reproductive health care.” said Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat.
In all, abortion would remain legal in 13 states if Roe v. Wade falls. Many other states took action in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the last time abortion rights were under threat in the Supreme Court, Nash said. Nevada, meanwhile, repealed the state’s criminal abortion law, while Maine broadened its pool of medical professionals who could perform abortions and required insurers and Medicaid to cover the procedure.
Many state legislatures have wrapped up their 2019 sessions, but Nash and Quigley expect the divide to widen even more next year. More states will likely pass restrictions, while others will seek to strengthen abortion rights.
“Until people feel the threat, they don’t take action,” Nash said.