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2012: Another record year for abortion restrictions?

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Michael Ainsworth AP By any estimate, advocates of reproductive rights have had a pretty successful week here in Washington. Dozens of companies have pulled ads from Rush Limbaugh’s show after the conservative radio host called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute.” Senate Republicans are backing off their push to repeal the health reform law’s contraceptives mandate. Their House colleagues don’t look keen to pick up the fight.

Outside the beltway, though, the landscape is quite different. Despite intense backlash to some of the provisions, states could be on track for another, record-breaking year of passing restrictions on reproductive health.

“We’re looking at about 430 abortion restrictions that have been introduced into state legislatures this year, which is pretty much in the same ballpark as 2011,” says Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group that focuses on health and reproductive rights. This year, Nash says, “is shaping up to be quite busy.”

Keep in mind, 2011 was already a watershed year for

abortion restrictions: States passed 83 such laws, more than triple the 23 laws passed in 2010. And much of that had to do with the 2010 election, when Republicans gained control of many state legislatures. With the political makeup of state capitols unchanged, lawmakers are continuing to put more limits abortion.

Next week, Texas will enact a law that bans Planned Parenthood clinics from participating in a Medicaid-affiliated family planning program. The Obama administration says that violates the terms of the program: States cannot exclude specific contractors for providing a legal service. The federal government will likely pull the program’s entire, $40 million budget, which served about 130,000 low-income women last year.

Virginia has moved forward with its much-protested bill to require a woman to undergo an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy. At the request of Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), legislators tweaked the bill to guarantee that it would not require more invasive, transvaginal ultrasounds. The bill now sits on McDonnell’s desk, and he’s poised to sign it. “It’s not any better than what they introduced in the first place,” says Nash.

Abortion debates are active across the country. The Oklahoma Senate passed a requirement Wednesday that women be invited to hear the fetus’s heartbeat before the pregnancy is terminated. Georgia is weighing a ban on late-term abortion (passed by five states in 2011); Alabama is looking at an ultrasound requirement.

“This is still fallout from the 2010 election,” says Nash. “On the state level, just like on the federal level, we had a number of conservative candidates elected. They shifted very quickly to a social issues agenda, and they’re continuing it as we head into another election year.”

What could make 2012 different from 2011? The intense backlash to the Virginia ultrasound bill could give legislators some pause. But perhaps not too much: The bill moved forward this week with relatively little fanfare.

There’s also a question of appetite. States saw great success passing dozens of abortion restrictions in 2012. How many new states would be politically amenable to such laws?

“My sense is that there are still places where we will see abortion restrictions become law,” says Nash. “I think every state is different, and it can depend on the specific restriction, and the outcry in response. We’re going to have to see if pushback really changes what we get in other states, if that gets stronger.”

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