Four ways the president affects abortion rights

August 28, 2012

In an interview with CBS News Monday night, Mitt Romney argued that abortion was not an issue for the presidential election. "This is a matter of the courts," Romney said. "It's been settled for some time by the courts."

The Supreme Court is certainly the only body that can overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion. But that does not mean the president does not hold sway over what abortion rights look like in a wide variety of ways.

1. Regulating Medicaid. Nine states passed laws that would ban abortion providers like Planned Parenthood from receiving federal Medicaid dollars. The Obama administration has taken a hard line in discouraging such laws, blocking many from coming into effect.

When Indiana was the first state to pass such a law, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services sent Gov. Mitch Daniels a stern letter. It warned that, should the state move forward, it risked losing all $4.3 billion of its federal Medicaid funds. The federal government stopped supporting Texas's Women's Health Program after the state blocked Planned Parenthood from participating.

2. Funding for nonprofits that provide abortions abroad. One of President Obama's first acts in office was allowing federal funding for international aid groups that perform abortion and provide other health-care services. In doing so, he reversed a law  known as the "global gag rule" instituted in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan.

Reversing that rule has become something of a rite of passage for new presidents. President Bill Clinton reversed Reagan in 1992, only to have his decision overridden by President George H.W. Bush who re-instituted the ban. President Obama is the latest president to participate in the back-and-forth -- presumably Romney, if elected, would reverse the United States's rules on this issue.

3. Passing federal abortion regulations. Most abortion legislation happens at state level. In 2011 alone, states passed 92 regulations on access. But that does not rule out a federal role, as the president can also sign laws that change the abortion access landscape.

President George W. Bush was the last chief executive to sign a major abortion law. He endorsed the 2005 Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, a law that banned a specific procedure used in late-term abortion cases. A legal challenge ensued but the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the new restriction, which remains in place today.

4. Appointing Supreme Court judges. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer are two reliable liberal votes at the country's high court, both of whom have a lengthy legal history of supporting abortion rights. Both are also well into their 70s now and could soon step down, giving this election the potential to reshape the Supreme Court.

Abortion rights supporters aren't even sure whether they have the votes, right now, to uphold Roe in the face of a Supreme Court challenge. If Romney were to appoint a Supreme Court justice or two, the votes would near certainly not be there.

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Dylan Matthews | August 28, 2012