Abortion Battles Heat Up Again In Several State Legislatures

ABORTION is starting to crackle again at the state level in what will be a pivotal year for this emotional and divisive issue. More than 100 abortion bills have been introduced in state legislatures, even though most legislative sessions started less than two months ago. Most are attempts to restrict abortions.

Action is already being taken:

The South Dakota Senate this week begins to take up what could become the toughest antiabortion law in the country. It would outlaw abortions except in cases of rape, incest, threat to the physical health of a woman, or where a fetus is severely handicapped. The bill has passed the House. The outlook in the Senate is uncertain.

Maryland Feb. 18 handed pro-choice advocates a qualified but significant victory by passing a law that guarantees a woman's right to an abortion, although the measure also contains a parental-notification provision for teenagers.

Other battles this year have yielded mixed messages, too - Utah approved a strict antiabortion law but Wyoming rejected one.

``Every day there are legislatures that have 10 abortion bills that get three more,'' says Valerie Syme, editor of Abortion Report, a newsletter that tracks the issue. ``It will be an interesting battle this year.''

This year will be important in part because it will determine how many more laws are passed that could pose a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 United States Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Two restrictive measures passed last year in the wake of the court's 1989 Webster decision, which gave states leeway in deciding when abortions can be carried out. Both were challenged and are traveling through the judicial system toward the high tribunal.

One, approved by Guam, a US territory, permits abortions only when a pregnant woman's life is endangered. The other, a Pennsylvania law, imposes procedural obstacles to abortion.

Utah's new measure, somewhere in between the two, will be challenged when it becomes law.

Pro-choice activists are worried their opponents will fill the courts with test cases that challenge the right to an abortion from a variety of angles, hoping to hand a more conservative-leaning Supreme Court a rationale for overturning Roe.

``Time is on their side,'' says Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). ``The more antichoice laws they can work into the judicial pipeline, the greater the chance the Supreme Court will one day either overturn Roe or weaken it to such a degree that women can't exercise their right of choice.''

This year will also be important because it will be the first test of political sentiment in state capitols in the wake of important elections last fall. After the Webster decision, pro-choice activists went on the offensive. Their membership rolls swelled; contributions poured in.

They targeted state lawmakers and governors in last November's elections, as did their opponents. Both sides made some gains.

By NARAL's arithmetic, the number of states where both houses of the legislature and the governor support abortion rights went from 7 to 14. Abortion opponents have their own figures.

The question is who will prevail when the bills come up.

``I think a lot of momentum has gone to the pro-life movement again,'' says one independent analyst who requested anonymity.

Last year some 350 antiabortion bills were filed in 41 states. Nine of the measures passed, though three were vetoed by governors (one has been subsequently overridden).

Pro-choice activists will field only a handful of new measures this year, concentrating instead on thwarting the other side's moves. They believe abortion foes have shifted tactics this year, filing not only the usual strict antiabortion measures but also bills that ``incrementally attack women's rights'' through procedural and other obstacles.

Abortion opponents, however, see things differently. Burke Balche, state legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, says the goal is to put forward legislation that fits with the ``mainstream views of the American public'' and try to inform people how ``extreme the current law on abortion is.''

``We'd like to get maximum protection for unborn children in as many places as possible,'' he says.

Key battles are expected in several states. Among them:

Missouri, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina, where bills banning most abortions are expected.

Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, New Mexico, and New Hampshire, where one focus is expected to be on parental notification or consent requirements for teenage abortions.

Ohio, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Michigan, where requiring doctors to tell patients the effects of abortions, mandatory waiting periods, or other procedural obstacles are likely.

Still, some legislative observers say the fervor over abortion may be tempered by other concerns this year, like the Persian Gulf war and economic issues.

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