Roe v. Wade at 40: Six questions about the state of abortion rights today

On Tuesday, the United States marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the historic US Supreme Court decision that granted women the right to an abortion. Still, in many parts of the country it is far harder for a woman to obtain an abortion today than it was in 1973. Here is a look at the state of abortion rights in America.

1.How easy is it for a woman in 2013 to get an abortion?

This varies drastically, depending upon where she lives, what kind of insurance she has, and how much money she has.

A woman in, say, a metropolitan part of California – where providers are fairly numerous and a fair amount of local public funding will help to pay for the procedure – may have pretty easy access. A poor woman in Washington, D.C., where public funding of abortion is prohibited, may have a hard time paying for it. And for a poor or middle-class woman in South Dakota, where just one clinic operates (on a part-time basis) and anyone seeking an abortion must navigate a labyrinth of counseling and delay restrictions, it may prove virtually impossible.

When it comes to reproductive rights, “there’s very much a class divide,” says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research organization. “Women who have money and resources and are used to the health-care system will be able to access abortion.... Women who are poor – these restrictions make it more difficult for them.”

Where have abortion's foes had their biggest successes?

Antiabortion supporters parade down St. Paul St. during the March for Life in downtown Dallas, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 marking the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/AP)

Americans United for Life (AUL), an antiabortion group, just released its annual “life list,” which ranks states on the basis of ongoing legal efforts to “create and sustain a culture of life.” Its Top 10 antiabortion states: Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Arizona, Nebraska, Indiana, Missouri, Georgia, and Virginia. The group gave a special mention to five states – Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Virginia – for legislation enacted in 2012.

Some of those measures, says Charmaine Yoest, president and chief executive officer of AUL, were fairly groundbreaking ones – such as Arizona’s ban on abortions past 20 weeks, which is being challenged in court. Other big areas of focus, Ms. Yoest says, have been on defunding abortion providers, regulating access to chemical abortions (in which drugs are used to induce an abortion), and passing “opt out” legislation, in which states restrict insurance coverage for abortion in the new exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

“Over the last two years, we have seen this tremendous upsurge in pro-life legislation at the state level,” Yoest says. “And we actually improved our position [in the 2012 elections] in terms of pro-life representation at the state level.”

If Roe v. Wade were reversed tomorrow, what would happen?

A flag that flew at a Washington D.C. antiabortion rally waves in the wind as thousands gathered for the Rally for Life outside the Earle Cabell Federal Courthouse, site of the landmark Roe v. Wade lawsuit filing over 40 years ago, in downtown Dallas, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/AP)

Four states have laws that automatically ban abortion outright if Roe is overturned, 13 retain pre-Roe bans on the books (which are currently unenforced), and seven states have laws that express their intent to restrict abortion to the maximum extent permitted in the absence of Roe.

Meanwhile, seven states – California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, and Washington – have laws on the books protecting women’s right to an abortion.

What do abortion-rights groups see as the most worrisome trends?

These groups point to the gradual erosion of women’s access to abortion, reduction in the number of clinics, and reduction of funding and insurance coverage for abortion.

1973 “was a high point for women’s reproductive freedom,” says Donna Crane, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington. “In the 40 years that followed, the Supreme Court has gotten increasingly conservative and has allowed more and more antiabortion state laws to creep on the books.”

Since 1995, Ms. Crane notes, 754 “antichoice” state laws have been enacted. In 2011 alone, some 92 restrictions were enacted, a record.

The regulations targeting providers are having an effect. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortion providers has been generally decreasing since 1982, when there were 2,908. In 2008, the most recent year for which Guttmacher provides figures, there were 1,793 – fewer than in 1974.

What trends concern anti­abortion groups?

While most legislation has centered on abortion restrictions, abortion-rights activists have seen some successes, too – particularly around some sweeping bans on abortion that were defeated by referendums in antiabortion states like South Dakota and Mississippi.

And while Virginia’s controversial ultrasound bill was ultimately passed, several other states – including Alabama, Idaho, and Pennsylvania – decided not to seek similar legislation after watching the battle play out.

How have the public’s views evolved over the past 40 years?

Thousands of antiabortion supporters gathered on Ross Ave. in downtown Dallas, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 for the March for Life following a service at the Cathedral Guadalupe. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/AP)

Polling has been controversial, since results vary based on how questions are framed and who asks them.

Based on Gallup polling, the percentages of Americans who believe abortion should be legal under all circumstances, illegal under all circumstances, and legal only under certain circumstances have stayed remarkably stable. The biggest chunk of Americans falls into the last group: 52 percent in 2012, compared with 54 percent in 1975. A quarter of Americans told Gallup last year they believed abortion should be legal in all circumstances, compared with 21 percent in 1975.

Over the past 17 years, however, Gallup polling has shown that fewer Americans identify as favoring abortion rights – declining from 56 percent in 1995 to 41 percent in 2012 (for both years, these responses came after survey-takers had been asked about the legality of abortion).