States hit by ‘tidal wave’ of pro-life legislation

Pro-life state lawmakers from Alabama to Iowa are claiming numerous victories in 2013. In July, Texas banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, North Carolina increased facility regulations for abortion centers and Wisconsin added a requirement that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

This year is on track to see the second-highest number of abortion-related regulations approved by state legislatures in the 40 years since Roe v. Wade, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank with ties to Planned Parenthood. The highest number of state abortion regulations was approved in 2011.

Where the action is

Since January, more than 50 laws in 23 states have been enacted. Legislation is still pending in some states where lawmakers are still in session. Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, called the widespread legislative success “a tidal wave” that began three years ago.

“The states are really where the action is, and where we’re making tremendous progress,” she said.

A Washington, D.C.-based legal organization, Americans United for Life works with states to craft pro-life legislation and strategies.

“It’s critical that we move the American understanding about the abortion experience off of its status quo,” Yoest said. “Most people want to put it in the corner of their mind as being a necessary evil. … We need for people to understand that abortion is not a solution. It merely deepens the pain and creates two victims. That’s the fundamental mission in front of us.”

The types of legislation vary, but several states have approved similar laws. Arkansas, North Dakota and Texas enacted laws banning abortion before or at 20 weeks post-fertilization, when the fetus may be able to feel pain, joining eight states with similar bans.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill in June, demonstrating a “trickle-up effect” from state laws, Yoest said. “The message we’re delivering is that within the framework of Roe v. Wade, there are ways to pass legislation that limit the ‘right to abortion.’”

‘Incremental legislation’

Yoest said state efforts benefit from a domino effect. This year, five states imposed stricter requirements on abortion facilities, including their regulation as ambulatory surgical centers rather than doctors’ clinics. Six prohibited the use of telemedicine for chemical abortions, meaning the patient first will have to be physically examined by a doctor. Eight restricted abortion coverage for people using Medicaid, state-funded insurance or insurance exchanges established under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Other new laws set requirements for parental notification, informed consent and ultrasound viewing.

Marie T. Hilliard, director of public policy and bioethics at the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center, said “incremental legislation” such as that trending this year is an effective means to increase protection for unborn children in the United States.

Some pro-life advocates might see incremental legislation as concessions to abortion’s legalization, but by imposing restrictions on abortion, the approach works to save lives and increase constituents’ awareness that “there’s something that needs protection,” Hilliard said. Blessed John Paul II affirmed the role of incremental or “imperfect” legislation in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”).

Incremental legislation was the right move in the Lone Star State, said Abby Johnson, a Texas-based pro-life advocate and former Planned Parenthood clinic director.

The state’s recently enacted abortion laws gained a national profile after state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered pro-life legislation at the end of a special legislative session in June, preventing its passage. The omnibus bill, which included the 20-week abortion ban and stronger regulations for abortion facilities, passed in a second special session and was signed into law July 18 by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Not all recent pro-life policy strategies have been successful. In 2012, several state legislatures considered bills defining personhood as beginning at conception. Most of the bills failed; a North Dakota personhood amendment faces popular referendum next year.

Meanwhile, judges in several states have halted the implementation of pro-life laws, including a North Dakota ban on abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat, due to pending lawsuits from abortion-rights organizations.

Tougher clinic regulations

Abortion-rights advocates call efforts to boost abortion center requirements “targeted regulation of abortion providers” or TRAP laws. In a June statement, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue called the range of pro-life bills “creative ways to chip away at women’s rights and ultimately end legal abortion care altogether.” Pro-life advocates say stricter regulations will ensure better care for women who do choose abortion, while abortion-rights proponents argue that they are only aimed at closing non-compliant clinics.

“There are significant problems inside these clinics that need to be addressed,” said Johnson, founder of And Then There Were None, an organization that helps abortion facility workers leave the industry. “We also know that these new laws will shut down abortion clinics. We have to be honest about that. … They’re not going to take the time, they’re not going to take the money to properly come up to code.”

Johnson said violations against current regulations are prevalent among Texas’ abortion facilities, and the abortion lobby’s resistance to stronger regulations compelled at least one Texas abortion-center worker to leave her job.

Both sides of the abortion debate point to the May trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortion doctor found guilty of murdering infants during late-term abortion procedures. The grand jury’s report attested to his clinic’s unsanitary conditions, medical violations and the failure of state departments to enforce regulations.

Abortion-rights advocates say abortion laws should not be influenced by criminal outliers like Gosnell, while pro-life advocates say tougher regulations will help to protect women and babies from similar situations. 

Geographic differences

This year’s legislation wave does not wash evenly across the United States. Pro-life laws are passing chiefly in Southern and Midwestern states under Republican-controlled legislatures and governors.

According to a July Pew Research Center survey, 54 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Forty percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases. The survey showed that people in the Great Lakes, South Atlantic, Midwest and South Central regions are more likely to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases than those in other parts of the country. Only 20 percent of people in New England states say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Catholic voices

To continue pro-life legislation’s current momentum, Catholics need to be involved in politics and vocal in the public square, said Robert F. Gilligan, president of the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors and executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois.

“Science is beginning to validate in a clearer, understandable manner that our position, which is that life begins at conception, is true,” he said. “Legislators now have the confidence and courage to enact more policies restricting abortion.” 

Maria Wiering writes from Maryland.