ADVERTISEMENT

Across nation, getting an abortion has gotten tougher

  • Article by: ERIK ECKHOLM
  • New York Times
  • January 3, 2014 - 10:16 PM

 

A three-year surge in anti-abortion measures in more than half the states has altered the landscape for abortion access, with supporters and opponents agreeing that the new restrictions are shutting some clinics, threatening others and making it far more difficult in many regions to obtain the procedure.

Advocates for both sides are preparing for new political campaigns and court battles that could redefine the constitutional limits for curbing the right to abortion set by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision and later modifications by the Supreme Court.

On Monday, in a clash that is likely to reach the Supreme Court, a federal appeals court in New Orleans will hear arguments on a Texas requirement that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals — a measure that caused one-third of the state’s abortion clinics to close, at least temporarily.

Advocates for abortion rights, taking heart from recent signs in Virginia and New Mexico that proposals for strong or intrusive controls may alienate voters, hope to help unseat some Republican governors this year as well as shore up the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.

Abortion opposition groups aim to consolidate their position in dozens of states and to push the Senate to support a proposal adopted by the Republican-controlled House for a nationwide ban on most abortions at 20 weeks after conception.

“I think we are at a potential turning point: Either access to abortion will be dramatically restricted in the coming year or perhaps the pushback will begin,” said Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University.

The anti-abortion groups, for their part, feel emboldened by new tactics that they say have wide public appeal even as they push the edges of Supreme Court guidelines, including costly clinic regulations and bans on late abortions.

“I’m very encouraged,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life. “We’ve been gaining ground in recent years with laws that are a stronger challenge to Roe. I think it is more difficult to get an abortion in the country today.”

The new laws range from the seemingly petty to the profound. South Dakota said that weekends and holidays could not count as part of the existing 72-hour waiting period, meaning that in some circumstances women could be forced to wait six days between their first clinic visit and an abortion.

Laws passed last year by Arkansas and North Dakota to ban abortions early in pregnancy, once a fetal heartbeat was detected, were hailed by some as landmarks if quickly rejected by federal courts. But bans on abortion at 20 weeks, also an apparent violation of constitutional doctrine, remain in force in nine states.

In Roe and later decisions, the Supreme Court said that women have a right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb — at about 24 weeks of pregnancy — and that any state regulations must not place an “undue burden” on that right.

In 2013 alone, 22 states adopted 70 different restrictions, including late-abortion bans, doctor and clinic regulations, limits on medication abortions and bans on insurance coverage, said a report by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Anti-abortion legislation in the states exploded after the major conservative gains in the 2010 elections, the report said, resulting in more than 200 measures in 30 states in the past three years.

Americans United for Life, an abortion foe group, has a similar count.

Twenty-four states have barred abortion coverage by the new health exchanges and nine of them forbid private insurance plans, as well, from covering most abortions. A dozen states have barred most abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy, violating the viability threshold.

A test is expected this month, when the Supreme Court announces whether it will hear Arizona’s appeal to reinstate its 20-week ban, which was overturned by federal courts.

Many experts expect the court to decline the case, but this would not affect the status of similar laws in effect in Texas and elsewhere. Still, those on both sides are watching closely, because if the court does take it, the basis of four decades of constitutional law on abortion could be upended.

“If they take the Arizona case, it seems like at least four of the justices are willing to reconsider the viability line as the point at which states can ban abortions,” said Caitlin Borgmann, an expert on reproductive rights at the City University of New York School of Law.

© 2014 Star Tribune