Abortion-Rights Backers on Offense After 3-Year Drubbing

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Abortion-rights supporters hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2014. Close

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Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Abortion-rights supporters hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2014.

Abortion-rights supporters are playing a new position: offense.

The volume of state-level, pro-abortion-rights legislation outstrips that of any year since the early 1990s, when states sought to codify access to the procedure, said Elizabeth Nash, states issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive health researcher. Some proposals seek to repeal restrictions fresh on the books, enacted during the past three years after Republicans took control of more legislatures and governorships. Others would ease access.

“Women’s legal right to access a safe abortion is being eliminated,” said state Representative Dan Frankel, a Democrat leading the effort in Pennsylvania. “We are sick and tired of losing ground.”

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Lawmakers are pushing back after a record number of laws since 2010 forced dozens of clinics to close and made it harder for women to terminate pregnancies or prevent them in the first place. Backers see the movement as a winning election strategy for the Democratic Party as it presents itself as supportive of women.

Fifty-one provisions have been introduced in 14 states, compared with 32 in six states about this time last year, Nash’s data show.

‘Tipping Point’

Amanda Allen, state legislative counsel at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which fights anti-abortion laws in court, calls this year a “tipping point.”

“I don’t think anyone thinks that this is going to get better overnight or in one legislative session, but people are playing the long game, which is unfortunately what our opponents have been doing for a long time,” she said.

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The potential to force change is dimmed by the grip on power maintained by Republicans since their unprecedented advances in statehouses in 2010. That enabled passage of a record 205 abortion restrictions through 2013, more than the prior decade combined, according to Guttmacher.

Americans United for Life has been a driving force behind that surge, providing state lawmakers with templates to enact abortion restrictions. Dan McConchie, vice president of government affairs at the Washington-based nonprofit, said the response from abortion-rights proponents isn’t threatening.

Plotting Restrictions

“The reason for the pro-life movement’s success is because we had a strategy that lined up with where the American people are,” he said. “What’s being offered by the other side is not something that the American people appear to embrace.”

The drive to restrict access continues. At least seven states are considering bans prior to fetal viability, while six would ban it outright. At least eight are weighing clinic regulations similar to those that have shuttered providers where they’ve already passed, including Texas and Michigan, by making compliance too expensive or logistically impossible.

Alabama would make it a felony to perform abortions after as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women even know they’re expecting. Missouri would extend the time a woman must wait between an initial clinic visit and termination to three days from 24 hours, which backers say is needed to ensure she thinks about her decision. Iowa would let abortion patients sue doctors for “emotional distress.”

Fighting Back

Abortion-rights supporters said they’re pressing forward, even if their efforts fail, to demonstrate they know how to fight back.

“We owe it to women and to people who are against intrusive government to keep at it,” said state Senator Adam Ebbin of Virginia, a Democrat. “The ball has got to be moved forward and we’re not going to stop until we’re over the finish line.”

Ebbin was among those who voted in favor of repealing a 2012 Virginia law requiring women to have an ultrasound examination and be offered a description of the fetus before an abortion.

The repeal died in the House of Delegates after passing the Senate on Feb. 11. Its chief sponsor, Senator Mamie Locke, a Richmond Democrat, said she would reintroduce the bill as long as she’s in office.

“The more people we help to understand why the law was wrong, the more I think voters, especially women voters, are going to question why we keep electing these people,” she said.

Virginia is one of seven states with proposals to repeal or relax abortion laws.

Murder Conviction

At least four states are bundling abortion-rights legislation with broader women’s-health measures, including Pennsylvania, where officials cracked down on abortion providers after the case of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell. He was convicted of murder last year after a trial that detailed his unorthodox late-term abortion methods at an unsanitary facility.

Frankel, who is chairman of the Democratic Caucus, is pushing seven measures that supporters are calling the “Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.” One bill would ban protesters within 15 feet of clinics. Other legislation would strengthen protections for pregnant women, nursing mothers and victims of domestic violence and revenge pornography, in which explicit photos are posted without permission.

“We can’t just be reactive. We have to have an agenda to counteract the conversation and the momentum they’ve had on these issues,” he said, referring to his opponents.

Seeking Control

Focusing on the issue will help Democrats regain legislative control, then repeal onerous laws, he said.

Last year, California was the sole state to pass legislation expanding abortion access. Democrats won approval of a measure allowing nurse practitioners to perform abortions instead of only doctors.

Lawmakers in other states say they’re seeking to follow. Washington’s House voted to require insurers who cover maternity care to also cover abortion.

Oregon is considering a requirement meant to ensure that health providers give out only medically accurate information. Abortion-rights supporters say some states require providers to disseminate falsehoods to dissuade patients.

Vermont’s Senate passed a bill Feb. 14 to eliminate outdated and unenforced provisions criminalizing the procedure. It awaits a vote in the House, where Democrats hold almost two-thirds of the seats and supporters say it will pass.

“We’ve been hearing about what’s been happening in other states, how aggressive the other side has been,” said Vermont state Senator Virginia Lyons, a Democrat. “We felt it was time to make a proactive statement.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Esme E. Deprez in New York at edeprez@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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