State Abortion Restrictions Hit Record High In 2011
Conservative state lawmakers set a record in 2011 for the highest number of anti-abortion and anti-family planning provisions enacted in a single year. Legislators introduced more than 1,100 provisions last year that chip away at women's reproductive rights, according to a new Guttmacher Institute report, and enacted 135 of them by year's end. By contrast, 89 of these provisions were enacted in 2010, 77 in 2009, and only 34 in 2005 under George W. Bush.
Beyond the basic numbers, a far higher percentage of the reproductive health provisions passed in 2011 directly restrict women's access to abortion services. Nearly 70 percent of the new provisions -- 92 of them -- restrict abortion, compared with only 28 percent in 2010.
"This is completely unparalleled," said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research organization. "We were just hammered on abortion rights last year, like nothing we've ever seen before."
Abortion bans based on the idea of "fetal pain" swept the Midwest in 2011, as five states -- Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma and Alabama -- joined Nebraska in banning abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. Minnesota Republicans also passed a 20-week ban, but Gov. Mark Dayton (D) vetoed the bill.
The fetal pains laws directly challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that said states cannot ban abortion before the fetus is viable, which usually occurs around the 24th week of pregnancy. While reproductive rights groups, such as the Center for Reproductive Rights, have called the bans unconstitutional, they say they're waiting to challenge them in court until potential plaintiffs emerge.
Other anti-abortion laws include mandatory ultrasounds that require physicians to show and describe the image of the fetus to a woman, mandatory waiting periods and pre-abortion counseling that make it logistically difficult for poor women in rural areas to access abortions, and provisions prohibiting insurance policies from covering abortion except in cases of life endangerment.
An increasingly popular way for states to restrict access to abortions is to regulate abortion clinics so tightly that they are unable to legally operate. Four states -- Virginia, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Utah -- adopted stringent standards for abortion clinics in 2011, such as hallway-width requirements, dressing room requirements and covered-entrance mandates that make it physically or financially impossible for many abortion clinics to stay open.
Anti-abortion activists say the regulations are to protect women's health from subpar clinics. But women's health groups charge that their sole purpose is to prevent women from being able to access safe, legal abortions.
"Regulation of all medical centers that genuinely protect the health and safety of patients is critical," said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards of Virginia's new regulations. "In contrast, these politically motivated regulations are medically unnecessary and in some cases inappropriate, do not adequately protect patient privacy, and could cause high-quality health centers to close."
The Kansas regulations were blocked in court, and reproductive rights groups are also planning to challenge the Virginia ones.
Several anti-abortion organizations did not return requests for comment.
Beyond abortion, 16 states went after low-income women's access to birth control and pap smears in 2011, passing legislation to reduce or fully axe state funds for Planned Parenthood and other family planning programs. Seven states -- Indiana, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and New Hampshire -- moved to disqualify Planned Parenthood from contracting with Medicaid or receiving state family planning funds because some of its clinics offer abortions.
The accelerated pace at which state lawmakers are pushing anti-abortion provisions does not appear to be slowing down any time soon, and the bills are getting more and more restrictive. At least 10 states are introducing or gathering votes for fetal personhood bills, which would define a "person" in the state constitution from the moment of fertilization. Ohio Republicans are pushing a bill that would ban abortions after the fetal heartbeat can be detected, which occurs as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Further, a Florida lawmaker introduced a relatively extreme bill last week that would make abortion a felony and send doctors to prison for life for performing the procedure unless they can prove the woman's life was in danger.
"We're seeing both more anti-abortion bills and more extreme bills. The goal posts keep moving," Nash said. "We're going to see more early abortion bans, more clinic regulations, more restrictions around medication abortions in 2012. What's unclear at this point is whether all the introductions are going to become law, or whether this will run its course when the people have had enough."