When Bette Grande, a Republican state representative in Fargo, North Dakota, wanted to make it illegal for a woman to end a pregnancy after learning her unborn child would suffer from Down syndrome or another chromosomal abnormality, she turned to a trusted source.
Americans United for Life, a nonpartisan Washington-based legal group that has worked for more than four decades to overturn abortion rights, had drafted a model bill to achieve just what Grande was seeking.
“I saw that they had information that I could use in my testimony -- good, factual information regarding abnormalities and the discrimination that occurs inside the womb, aborting 90 percent of these babies,” Grande said in an interview.
It’s a role Americans United for Life is playing to fuel a wave of state-level efforts to restrict abortions and chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that made the procedure legal. So far this year, 17 states have enacted 45 new curbs on abortion. In addition to providing legislative language and data, the Washington group created a state ranking system to stoke an anti-abortion arms race of sorts among Republican governors and legislators.
“Our organization has attempted to inject, if you will, a bit of competition between the states, and that has been good, because at the end of the day, not every state has done everything possible that can be done to reduce abortion and boost the long-term effort to get the court to overturn Roe,” Dan McConchie, AUL’s Chicago-based vice president for government affairs, said in an interview. “People come to us and say, ‘What else do we need to do to boost our ranking?’”
North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple signed Grande’s bill into law soon after it passed, along with the most far-reaching restriction of any state -- a ban on the procedure that applies as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, or as early as six weeks. Taken together, the laws represent the most aggressive effort to limit abortion in the U.S. Attention now turns to Texas and North Carolina, which are debating anti-abortion-rights legislation this week.
Lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives gave initial approval late today, according to the Associated Press, to a measure that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require clinics that offer the procedure to meet surgical-care standards, and mandate that their doctors have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The measure would also guide when drugs can be used to induce an abortion, the news service said.
“There is a long-term strategy by abortion opponents to focus on the states, and it is reshaping the landscape around abortion,” said Elizabeth Nash, the Washington-based state issues manager at New York’s nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for reproductive health and rights. “We are seeing these bills become law all across the country -- well over half the states have enacted some sort of abortion restrictions in the last three years.”
Even as the Republican National Committee retools its message to better appeal to women as part of a broader rebranding effort following the party’s 2012 presidential election loss, party leaders in many states -- catering to narrower constituencies that prioritize such issues -- are moving in the other direction.
They include the North Dakota “heartbeat” law and one in Arkansas banning most abortions after 12 weeks’ gestation; new measures in Arizona, Michigan and Virginia placing stringent rules on abortion clinics; and a Virginia statute requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion.
“It’s very encouraging to pro-life people around the country to see what the states are doing, especially after the way that Chairman Reince Priebus acted after the defeat at the presidential level, saying we had to remake our image and sort of soothe everyone,” said former Republican U.S. Representative Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, vice president for government affairs of the Washington-based Susan B. Anthony List, a group that seeks to end abortions.
The new laws are sparking legal battles around the country. Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday got a court order delaying enforcement of a measure signed last week by Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Federal judges in Alabama and Mississippi have stopped similar laws from being implemented after finding they may result in substantial burdens for women seeking to terminate pregnancies.
North Dakota’s sole abortion clinic has brought a federal suit to block that state’s law, and a federal judge in Arkansas temporarily blocked a ban on most abortions after 12 weeks, after the state ACLU chapter and the Center for Reproductive Rights challenged it.
Polling offers a mixed picture of the public’s views on abortion, suggesting the political ramifications could also be unpredictable. While many national surveys show that a majority of Americans want abortion to be legal in all or most cases and Roe to be upheld, they also indicate that support for abortion rights falls as the fetal gestational age rises.
A December 2012 USA Today/Gallup poll showed that while the public believes 61 percent to 31 percent that abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, the result flipped when respondents were asked about the second three months --when just 27 percent thought abortion should be legal and 64 percent wanted it outlawed.
The National Right to Life Committee’s political action arm, which backs opponents of abortion rights, says of the 290 federal candidates it endorsed last year, 80 percent won their elections. At the same time, exit polls indicate that Republicans fare poorly with women voters at the national level. In 2012, President Barack Obama earned an 11 percentage-point edge over rival Mitt Romney, 55 percent to 44 percent.
Texas Governor Rick Perry is using this month’s special legislative session to push through a bill that imposes new regulations on clinics that may force many to close and would ban abortions after 20 weeks. The Republican has credited Americans United for Life with providing a guide to enacting the measure. Texas ranks 14th in AUL’s anti-abortion rating.
The group has maintained a warm rapport with Perry, even benefiting financially from its alliance with him. Shortly after announcing his presidential campaign in 2011, Perry co-chaired a gala for the group in Washington. That same year, AUL dispatched a Texas-based lobbyist, Ashley McAndrew, to ask state Senator Dan Patrick of Houston to sponsor a version of its model bill to restrict use of abortion-inducing drugs such as RU-486 that terminate early pregnancies. Patrick obliged, and it was he who called on Perry to convene the current special session.
The group publishes a “Defending Life” book each year -- this year’s tops 700 pages and contains 48 model bills -- that outlines its strategy for upending Roe and provides like-minded lawmakers with a step-by-step guide for how they can help.
“In order for the court to actually reconsider Roe, it has to have an active case before it,” said McConchie, the group’s government affairs executive. “So, we work with legislators to pass laws that will essentially spark the right kind of court challenge, and give them the opportunity to reconsider the question, as well as working with states, in the meantime, to actually help them reduce their abortion levels.”
Guttmacher’s Nash says the past three years have seen a record number of abortion restrictions enacted at the state level, and they are expanding in scope.
Among the most popular in recent months have been efforts such as the one in Texas to narrow the window during which women can terminate pregnancies to before 20 weeks gestation, an idea endorsed by the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, which voted June 18 to do so.
States are also turning to regulations on abortion clinics, spurred in part by a national focus on the case of Philadelphia abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted of murder in May after a trial that detailed his unorthodox late-term abortion methods at an unsanitary facility.
“This is no doubt a net-winning issue for Republicans, because you’re either going to stand with Kermit Gosnell, or you’re going to stand with unborn babies and women’s health,” said Virginia-based Republican strategist Greg Mueller.
Democrats say the focus belies Republican claims of rebranding and will alienate key groups they have pledged to court.
“Republicans from state Houses to Congress are working day and night in pursuit of a narrow-minded agenda to infringe on the rights of women to make health-care decisions that are best for them,” said a June 18 Democratic National Committee statement, which called the recent moves an “assault on women’s health.”
Republicans are aware of the success Democrats had last year in painting their party as waging a “war on women,” and are emphasizing women’s health in their efforts to enact new abortion limits.
Americans United for Life’s book acknowledges the conflict. “Legislative and educational efforts that only emphasize the impact of abortion on the unborn are insufficient because they fail to account for this paradox,” reads this year’s volume. “The public is concerned about both the impact on women and the impact on the unborn from abortion or from prohibitions and restrictions on abortion.”
Anti-abortion activists are putting new focus on the effects of the procedure on women. Live Action, an organization that conducts undercover investigations of abortion clinics and produces documentary-style videos detailing its results, is trying to shine a spotlight on the practice.
“Our job is to bring the controversy to the surface of the horrors happening in abortion clinics across the country, and then those horrors, once they’re brought to light, will have political consequences, sometimes criminal consequences and certainly cultural consequences,” said Lila Rose, Live Action’s president.