Access to Abortion Pared at State Level

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 29, 2005

This year's state legislative season draws to a close having produced a near-record number of laws imposing new restrictions on a woman's access to abortion or contraception.

Since January, governors have signed several dozen antiabortion measures ranging from parental consent requirements to an outright ban looming in South Dakota. Not since 1999, when a wave of laws banning late-term abortions swept the legislatures, have states imposed so many and so varied a menu of regulations on reproductive health care.

Three states have passed bills requiring that women seeking an abortion be warned that the fetus will feel pain, despite inconclusive scientific data on the question. West Virginia and Florida approved legislation recognizing a pre-viable fetus, or embryo, as an independent victim of homicide. And in Missouri, Gov. Matt Blunt (R) has summoned lawmakers into special session Sept. 6 to consider three antiabortion proposals.

While national leaders in the abortion debate focus on the upcoming nomination hearings of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court, grass-roots activists have been changing the legal landscape one state at a time. In most cases, the antiabortion forces have prevailed, adding restrictions on when and where women can get contraceptive services and abortions, and how physicians provide them.

Antiabortion activists say they have pursued a two-pronged approach that aimed to reduce the number of abortions immediately through new restrictions and build a foundation of lower court cases designed to get the high court to eventually reverse the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision making the procedure legal.

On the other side, a handful of states have approved provisions that make it easier for women to get emergency contraception, known as the "morning after" pill. However, two Republican governors, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and George E. Pataki of New York, vetoed such bills.

Locally, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has signed legislation that makes a "viable fetus" a distinct victim of a crime such as murder or manslaughter. Virginia did not enact any laws related to abortion.

"Every year, we see a lot of legislation introduced," said Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research group that specializes in family and reproductive health. "This year, we have seen a lot more action than in recent years. The level of bills enacted has been much higher."

David Bereit, director of program development for the American Life League, which opposes abortion in all circumstances, supports both the short-term efforts and the long-term strategy aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade .

"People are becoming frustrated more progress hasn't been made at the federal level and feel they don't have as much control to change things there," he said. "If we can't outright ban abortion, what can we do to make it less prevalent? We see it's much easier to take up funding and parental notification measures at the state level."

In the meantime, "we want to have cases working their way up in the eventuality Roe would be overturned," Bereit said.

South Dakota has been among the most active states, passing five new laws, including a "trigger" law that would impose an immediate abortion ban after any Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade .

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