What’s Behind the Surge of Abortion Bills?

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The political climate is what some have called a “perfect storm” for anti-abortion activists seeking to curb the procedure and make direct attacks on Roe v. Wade.  Droves of social conservatives have taken office in recent elections, angst over health care reform continues, and the Planned Parenthood “sting” has given opponents leverage to undermine the other side.

NARAL, an abortion-rights group, tries to track each piece of abortion-related legislation making its way through state legislatures. Last year they tracked 174 bills. This session’s count is already up to 351. And there are some clear themes. One of the biggest is a financial push to stop coverage for abortions. Another chunk of bills seeks to copy Nebraska’s controversial measure banning abortions after the 20-week mark — some of which, like Idaho’s, make it a felony to violate the ban. (Such measures are based on the idea that a fetus can feel pain by this point in the timeline.)

Mandatory ultrasounds have been proposed this session in at least 10 states, though in some — like Montana and Kentucky — the measures are already near defeat. The more controversial versions not only require the woman to undergo an ultrasound, but also mandate that she see the resulting images. A bill in Indiana, for example, would require that the woman see the ultrasound images, get a copy of them, and listen to any fetal heartbeat.

The heartbeat has been a well-publicized benchmark in the Ohio debate, where a “heartbeat bill” would ban any abortion when a fetal heartbeat is audible. This can occur within a few weeks of pregnancy. Two pregnant women were brought forward earlier this month so their fetuses could “testify” for the bill via sonogram.

Another batch of bills ban abortions performed based on the race or the sex of the fetus. Such measures typically target the doctor doing the procedure, or anyone else who might “coerce” the woman. Arizona’s Senate passed a bill that not only bans abortions based on race or sex, but also makes the coercion/performance a felony punishable by up to three-and-a-half years of jail time. There’s little evidence that this is happening in the United States, but such proposed bans have been popular for years all the same. (Although the writer clearly takes a side on the issue, you can see a decent back-and-forth of claims and evidence here.)

In Georgia, State Rep. Bobby Franklin takes criminalizing to the next level, calling all abortions “prenatal murder” and proposing that those who “commit” it be punished under the state’s homicide laws. Some critics have worried that the language he uses in H.B. 1 might criminalize some miscarriages, too, because only those with absolutely no “human involvement” would be excepted.

And in South Dakota, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a law on Tuesday that extends the waiting period between an initial visit and when the procedure can be performed to three days, the longest in the country. The measure also requires that the woman seeking the abortion undergo dissuasive counseling before following through.

Those on the anti-abortion side have little to lose by throwing whatever bills they can at the wall and seeing what sticks. Even if their measures conflict with Roe v. Wade, a subsequent court battle provides opportunities to publicize their position. And there’s always the next session to revise the language and have another go.