Outlook for pro-life laws optimistic, but plenty of work ahead

Legal struggles on abortion issues in the past year included notable successes on the pro-life front, much to the chagrin of abortion-rights supporters, who regard the shift in the landscape as a “troubling trend.”

Statistics in a state policy review on reproductive health, published by the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, show that “22 states enacted 70 abortion restrictions during 2013. … To put recent trends in even sharper relief, 205 abortion restrictions were enacted over the past three years (2011–2013), but just 189 were enacted during the entire previous decade (2001–2010).”

Despite the encouraging progress, plenty of challenges await pro-life advocates in 2014 — in both the courts and in capital buildings.

Targeted restriction laws

According to the Guttmacher review, Alabama, North Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin enacted laws in 2013 requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

“All four were immediately challenged in court; enforcement of the Alabama, North Dakota and Wisconsin laws was temporarily blocked, but the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for implementation of the Texas requirement as the litigation proceeds,” the study states.

At the time of Our Sunday Visitor’s press deadline, a federal appeals court in New Orleans was planning to hear arguments on the Texas requirement on Monday, Jan. 6.

According to Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, a lawsuit is pending in its state court — a challenge to the 2013 law requiring abortion physicians to have admitting privileges at a local hospital was combined with a challenge to a 2011 law regulating abortion drugs.

“Although those are the statutes being challenged, the case is really about whether the North Dakota constitution’s liberty clause provides a right to abortion. Last month the state supreme court heard arguments on the matter,” said Dodson.

The North Dakota Catholic Conference filed a friend of the court brief but doesn’t know when the court will issue its opinion, although the probability is sometime in 2014.

“[It’s] risky to make predictions about court decisions, but we feel the law does not support the idea of state constitutional right to abortion and hope the justices will agree,” Dodson told Our Sunday Visitor.

Heartbeat/fetal-pain laws

The North Dakota legislature does not meet in 2014, but Dodson said another lawsuit (this one in federal court) challenges a law passed during the state’s 2013 legislative session that prohibits abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. The court has issued a preliminary injunction and further proceedings will occur this year.

“The prospects for success on the heartbeat ban at the lower courts are against us, but in the long run it is possible that the law could be upheld if the case were to reach the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Dodson.

North Dakota also will see a measure on the ballot in November that would place a human life amendment into the state constitution, establishing that there does not exist a right to abortion in the state constitution.

Arkansas is facing a challenge similar to North Dakota’s. In March 2013, the Arkansas legislature overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe on pro-life legislation that required an ultrasound if a woman is 12 weeks pregnant. If a heartbeat is detected, no abortion may take place. The law was set to take effect in August 2013, but a federal judge blocked implementation of the law when the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights challenged it in court.

“It’s going to be a long court battle in that one, I’m afraid,” said Rose Mimms, executive director for the Arkansas Right to Life.

Beebe also vetoed a bill prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks gestation, which the legislature again overrode. That law remains unchallenged in courts.

Impersonating doctors

Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, told OSV that the conference made progress in 2013, and she is cautiously optimistic as the state’s General Assembly gets underway, which was scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 7. Hill said that Pennsylvania has had one of the toughest abortion laws in the nation for many years and is a strong pro-life state, with elected officials on both sides of the aisle identifying themselves as such.

“Recently released statistics showed the number of abortions in Pennsylvania are down nearly 5 percent in 2012,” Hill said. “Yet, the terrible tragedy that occurred in Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s clinic in Philadelphia a few years ago showed we have much more work to do.” A tough clinic-regulations law was passed in 2012, and in 2013, the state prohibited coverage of elective abortions in the health care exchanges.

Now, when the state legislature returns in a few weeks, the conference will focus on House Bill 587, a proposal to increase the penalty for those who commit the crime of impersonating a doctor.

“This addresses another of the careless crimes committed by Gosnell and his staff. If you recall, several of his staff members represented themselves as doctors, although they had no medical training,” said Hill. “A woman died and seven newborn babies were killed by infanticide in Dr. Gosnell’s abortion clinic. He is now serving three consecutive life sentences in prison for his role in the deaths.”

Federal levels

Updates on the controversial Health and Human Services Mandate will most likely dot 2014 as courts continue to untangle the disputes from both secular and religious groups over the question of employer conscience rights in regards to contraception, abortifacients and sterilization in health insurance.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted a last-ditch plea on New Year’s Eve from the Colorado-based Little Sisters of the Poor just hours before the mandate was to have gone into effect.

Ingrid Duran, a senior state legislative analyst at National Right to Life, told OSV that “our legislative sampling and priorities for 2014 are to enact pro-life measures that continue to keep the unborn child in the abortion debate and reveal the baby’s humanity.”

“We will continue to provide our model legislation on the pain-capable unborn child protection act, bans on webcam abortions, opt-out legislation,” she added. “This model was created based on the new federal health care law which allows states to opt out of paying for abortion coverage in the state exchanges that Obamacare creates.”

Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.