Abortion report card: Half of states get an 'F' from activist group

Access to abortion has been whittled back, NARAL Pro-Choice America says in its annual report. But 12 states still deserve an 'A,' and elections can be pivotal in battleground states like Virginia.

Tamir Kalifa/AP
Anti-abortion rights supporter Katherine Aguilar holds a crucifix and prays while opponents and supporters of abortion rights gather in the State Capitol rotunda in Austin, Texas in July 2013.

NARAL Pro-Choice America surveys the abortion rights landscape, and sees multiple pictures.

First, it sees a nation that has steadily whittled back access to abortion, with fully half the states deserving an “F” on the group’s reproductive rights “report card.” But it also sees a dozen states earning an “A” grade, many of them having passed measures in recent years to bolster access to reproductive health services.

And like the political map of the country, there are the “purple” battleground states, where competing efforts to expand, pull back, or hold steady on abortion access can hinge on elections for governor and the state legislature.

In 2013, 24 states enacted 52 anti-abortion measures, while 10 states enacted 16 pro-abortion-rights measures, NARAL finds in its annual report, called “Who Decides?” Since 1995, states have enacted 807 anti-abortion measures. 

“The anti-choice war on women did not slow down in 2013,” says NARAL's president, Ilyse Hogue, in the report. “You can be sure it will only ramp up further in 2014 as the mid-term elections approach."

For social conservatives, the cause of protecting unborn children, including at the earliest stages of fetal development, is just as dearly held. And as society increasingly accepts gay rights, once the companion issue to abortion for religious conservatives, the abortion battle has only risen in importance. In red states, it is perhaps the top issue for legislators seeking to burnish their social conservative bona fides in November.

A divided Congress, and a Democrat in the White House, has kept abortion rights on the back burner in Washington. The Supreme Court has also kept the issue mostly at arms length.

On Wednesday, the high court will hear a Massachusetts case centered on the free speech rights of abortion protesters at clinics. On Monday, it declined to take a case examining the constitutionality of an Arizona law banning most abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had invalidated the law.

But 11 other states have similar laws on the books, as well as dozens of others meant to effectively ban abortion outright or regulate its practice. Supporters of such regulations say they are trying to protect the health of women. Opponents say the restrictions are meant to block access to the procedure.

Last year, Arkansas enacted eight anti-abortion laws, the most of any state, including a ban on abortion after 12 weeks’ gestation. North Dakota enacted a ban on abortion as early as six weeks. Texas enacted a series of regulations, including a requirement that an abortion doctor have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Since the law went into effect, a dozen abortion clinics in the state have closed.  

On the pro-abortion-rights side of the ledger, California passed more laws than any other state, with four. Most notable was its law that allows nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives, and physician assistants to perform early-stage abortions.

But no state exemplifies the importance of elections in recent times more than Virginia. The Democratic sweep of statewide offices last November means that newly installed Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring can have an immediate impact on the implementation of the laws regulating abortion clinics, even if the state legislature likely is not inclined to overturn the laws themselves. Laws passed under the previous administration resulted in the closure of some clinics.

Abortion proved to be a potent issue for Governor McAuliffe in a state now firmly established as an electoral battleground. According to the exit polls, 20 percent of voters ranked abortion as their No. 1 issue, and among those “abortion voters,” McAuliffe had a 25-point advantage. He also won with the help of a strong gender gap. 

“What we saw is voters sending a message,” says Ms. Hogue.

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