Twenty-four years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, the fundamental holding of Roe v. Wade stands: that a woman has a constitutional right to end a pregnancy. But a more recent high court ruling, a 1992 decision allowing states greater ability to restrict abortion, also continues to reverberate.
In the past two years, states have enacted twice as many laws limiting abortion rights as they did in the previous two years. States passed 32 "antichoice" laws, compared with 16 laws put in place the previous two years, according to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), which issued its annual report to coincide with the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
"Our report demonstrates how serious the threat is to the right to choose," says NARAL President Kate Michelman.
The rise in laws restricting abortion rights reflects the growing anti-abortion mood in state legislatures. By NARAL's count, 78 of the nation's 99 state legislative bodies now support legislation to restrict abortion beyond the limits the Supreme Court prescribed 24 years ago.
Recent bombings at abortion clinics, likely timed for the Roe anniversary, also reflect deeply held feelings by some in society that abortion is fundamentally wrong and must be stopped. Overall, however, violence at clinics has been on the decline. Negative publicity over clinic violence has led peaceful opponents of abortion to redouble their efforts to encourage nonviolent protest - and to take their battles into the political and legislative arena.
In recent years, the number of abortions performed annually has declined in the United States, though the US still has the highest abortion rate in the industrialized West. The cause of the decline is difficult to pinpoint.
On Capitol Hill, the 1996 elections resulted in solid anti-abortion majorities in both houses. In the last Congress, the House was anti-abortion, but the Senate was still somewhat supportive of abortion rights.
In the new Congress, Republican leaders have vowed to rework a bill banning a late-term procedure opponents call "partial birth abortion." President Clinton vetoed an earlier version of the bill.
Three states now have laws on the books banning partial-birth abortions. But in its survey, NARAL has found that efforts are under way in 26 more states to enact such a ban, either through legislation or ballot measures. The ban represents the first time a type of abortion has been made illegal since Roe.
Other types of restrictions on abortion chronicled by NARAL: parental consent or notification, husband consent or notification, waiting periods, and "informed consent" rules that require women to receive materials on fetal development, prenatal care, and adoption.