Efforts to curb abortion proliferate at state level

Abortion foes try to chip away at Roe v. Wade, most recently through laws focusing on 'personhood' of a fetus.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Efforts at the state level to curb abortions are intensifying, adding to the nation's culture wars.

From well-known attempts to require parental notification for teenagers to newer drives to recognize the "personhood" of a fetus, abortion foes are trying for gains in state legislatures even as both sides spar over the reproductive-rights positions of federal court nominees.

Abortion opponents have been pushing incremental limitations ever since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, and observers debate their effectiveness. Lately, however, more such bills are being signed, reflecting, in part, the nation's more conservative state legislatures, and perhaps also the opinion of many Americans, who want abortion to remain legal but would like some restrictions.

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"We've seen more bills [related to abortion] enacted in the first five months of this year [16] than in all of last year," says Elizabeth Nash, state monitor for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights policy group. "It's hard to measure the impact. But every time we get one of these laws, we say it's just another way to chip away at Roe."

Among the recent efforts:

• Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a law last week that requires minors wanting an abortion to get written parental consent (as opposed to parental notification, which was previously required). It also bans a woman from getting an abortion after 26 weeks of pregnancy, unless her life is threatened or the fetus is brain damaged.

• Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently signed legislation giving the state increased oversight of clinics that offer second-trimester abortions. While Governor Bush and others have stressed that it is only intended to ensure safety and quality care at clinics, abortion-rights groups see it as singling out facilities in hopes of closing them.

• A Georgia law approved last month requires a 24-hour waiting period and parental notification for minors. More unusual, it specifies that the doctor must inform the woman of the fetus's age, alternatives to abortion, and the likelihood that the fetus will feel pain during the abortion.

• In a similar focus on the fetus, Indiana now requires abortion doctors to notify patients that they can see an ultrasound image and listen to the fetus's heartbeat. The Michigan House recently passed a bill that requires an ultrasound be done before every abortion.

Whether any of these laws effect the number of abortions performed, or a woman's ability to get an abortion, is debatable.

"What we have going on here in state after state after state are efforts by antiabortion state legislators to keep the base happy," says David Garrow, a legal historian at Emory Law School in Atlanta. "The appearance of activity appears to satisfy people even if, when you look at it carefully, there's no tangible impact."

He cites bills regulating late-term abortions as a prime example. Such abortions (also called "partial birth") are extremely rare, and few states have clinics willing to perform them, regardless of state laws.

"Now, you can't get an abortion in Texas after 20 or 24 weeks, no matter what," says Peggy Romberg, CEO of the Women's Health and Family Planning Association of Texas, who says her organization decided not to challenge the law since the impact was so minimal.

Even the parental consent bill, she says, means very little once parental notification is already a law. Still, she says, "we see the erosion bit by bit.... I think the assaults have an overall effect I find disheartening."

Even abortion opponents admit that some of the restrictions have little real effect. But they still see them as important in keeping the issue public, establishing legal precedents that acknowledge a fetus as an individual, and raising awareness of the fetus's personhood for Americans who may be undecided about abortion.

"Even in cases where it may be more symbolic or less effectual in saving lives of unborn children, we have to recognize it has an effect in public relations and helping people to think these things through," says David Bereit, a program director for the American Life League.

Mr. Bereit acknowledges a flip side as well: Incremental gains - like parental consent - could jeopardize the long-term goal of outlawing all abortions. "If abortion is wrong and truly kills an unborn child, it shouldn't matter if a parent says yes or no," he says. "Could it give more legitimacy to abortion in the eyes of the law?"

One tactic gaining popularity is "informed consent" - laws that require abortion seekers to be notified about pain the fetus may experience and medical and psychological risks to the mother. Some tell doctors to cite an increased risk of breast cancer, even though most doctors say no such risk exists. Planned Parenthood recently filed suit against a South Dakota law that requires women to sign a statement saying, among other things, that the abortion will terminate the life of a "whole, separate, unique, living human being."

Critics of these laws aimed at getting women to think of the fetus as an individual - the latest of which is the ultrasound requirement - believe this amounts to legislating what should be the realm of medicine. "It's putting politicians' beliefs into a doctor's office," says Ted Miller, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America. "These proposals are coming from people very hostile to individual privacy."

Abortion opponents counter that anything that gets women - and the law - to recognize a fetus as a person is a step in the right direction.

"The dialogue has gotten so heavily and strongly on, 'This is a woman's right to choose' - let's talk about, 'This is a human being we're dealing with here,' " says Brian Newell, state and local coordinator for the Family Research Council. "We're encouraged to see this type of pro-life action out there, but our ultimate goal is to get to a point where abortion is no longer a reality."

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