At this time last year, GOP-controlled state legislatures across the U.S. were passing a record number of laws restricting women's access to reproductive health care. Now in the spring of 2012, as those same lawmakers attempt to impose new, harsher restrictions, they're meeting with a great deal more resistance from women.
In the past two weeks, four conservative state legislatures -- in Tennessee, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Arizona -- have backed off of controversial anti-abortion or anti-contraception bills after facing significant public backlash over the proposals. Women who previously weren't as politically active in those states have come out of the woodwork to protest, women lawmakers have introduced "message amendments" that target men's health, and legislators are personally hearing from angry women through Facebook posts, emails and phone calls to a noticeably higher degree than previous years.
"I would say there's some cautious optimism," said Elizabeth Nash, an expert on state policy for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy research organization. "I do think the attention that has been paid to all of these restrictions is beginning to have an impact."
Tennessee State Rep. Matthew Hill (R) recently removed provisions from a bill he introduced that would have required the state to publish the names of abortion doctors and detailed information about women who have had abortions. After the national media focused attention on the bill and raised concerns that it could promote anti-abortion violence against doctors and women, Hill said he started to feel an alarming amount of pressure to drop the bill.
"[Opponents'] categorization of me as a terrorist, murderer or more has been used by their leftist friends to engender hatred and incite the threat of violence against me," Hill told the Legislative Health and Human Service Committee on Wednesday.
But Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, says the backlash against Hill's bill reflects a growing anger and increased political participation among women in Tennessee who are tired of seeing legislators target their reproductive rights. Many women were upset when state lawmakers voted to defund Planned Parenthood in May 2011, Teague said, but that firestorm didn't compare to the level of outrage that's happening now.
"This year, the legislators here have seen a huge increase in vocal opposition to some of the things they're doing to attack women's health care and their access to it," he told HuffPost. "That's not something that's happened here, traditionally. People on our side have not been as vocal as people on the other side, and that's a very positive change, to make sure elected officials are hearing the entire range of opinions of people across the state."
A similar public outcry has emerged in Idaho against a proposed mandatory ultrasound bill. Republican lawmakers ended up dropping the bill entirely after silent protesters surrounded the state capitol in Boise to demonstrate against the bill with signs that said things like "Women Are Watching," and state legislators started hearing from women in their districts that the bill was bad policy.
The Idaho bill's sponsor, Sen. Chuck Winder (R-Boise), was also pelted with negative attention via email, phone, Facebook and even nationally syndicated comic strips over comments he made that seemed to suggest that women would use rape as an excuse to get an abortion.
"[Republicans] recognized that when you kick the beehive, bees come out," said House Minority Leader John Rusche (D-Lewiston).
And in Arizona, the GOP-dominated state Senate voted down a bill that would have required some women to show their employers evidence that their contraception use was only for medical reasons. The House-passed bill became a lightning rod for controversy after the national media got ahold of it -- even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) jumped in to criticize it on NBC -- and eight Republicans ended up voting against it on Wednesday.
Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Glendale), the bill's sponsor, said she was "surprised" the bill failed because she had "counted the votes." But some of her GOP colleagues decided they could not support a bill that had attracted so much negative attention.
"I was watching Fox News the other night, and I saw something I'd never seen -- they were making fun of Arizona. They were saying we'd gone over the top ... on this bill," said Sen. Michele Reagan (R-Scottsdale), who voted against it. "And I thought to myself, 'I don't want my party to be the minority.'"
In spite of the resistance, Arizona Republicans and legislatures across the country are still pushing and passing a number of bills that restrict reproductive rights. A 20-week abortion ban is moving in Arizona, a mandatory waiting period for abortions passed in the New Hampshire House on Wednesday, and Wisconsin legislators recently passed a bill that limits abortion insurance coverage and imposes abstinence-only sex education in schools.
Compared to last year, Republican state lawmakers are being more cautious about the kinds of bills they introduce and pass, as well as in their rhetoric on women's issues. The question is whether the anger and enthusiasm that women are now expressing in the red states will translate to the polls in November.
"I'm very heartened to hear about the outcry and that it appears there are legislators paying attention to women's concerns," said Nash. "My concerns are that we are in the beginning of a long effort, and we can't lose momentum now."