Antiabortion Efforts Move to the State Level

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

JACKSON, Miss. -- Twelve women sat gloomily in a windowless conference room as Joseph Booker, M.D., recited the instructions required by the state of Mississippi before he can perform an abortion.

"Try to bear with us," Booker began. "This is something we have to do."

Prenatal benefits may be available, prospective fathers are legally liable for support and a list of adoption agencies can be provided, he said, ticking through a list worn into his memory. He offered the women a packet that included a brochure containing color photos of tiny fetuses inside the womb.

No one took the packet. Each woman silently signed the consent form in her lap and filed out. They passed a line of singing and praying antiabortion protesters -- "Do you have time for a 15-second prayer?" "Ma'am, killing your baby isn't going to help" -- to wait the 24 hours mandated by Mississippi legislators.

Booker's clinic is the only place left in Mississippi to obtain a legal abortion. Access is no longer simple at a time when the biggest battles over reproductive rights are taking place not in Washington but in Jackson and Bismarck, Little Rock and Helena. In 2008 alone, state legislatures nationwide considered about 400 measures to restrict abortion.

Recognizing that strong Democratic majorities and the election of Barack Obama as president make it increasingly unlikely that federal laws will be tightened or Roe v. Wade overturned, opponents are pressing legislators to make abortion more difficult to obtain and, they hope, harder to accept.

Rules requiring that a woman be offered the chance to view a sonogram are designed to make her think again. Laws imposing a waiting period after a first visit to a provider have the added effect of raising the obstacles and the costs, especially for poor and working-class women, who are the ones most likely to have an unintended pregnancy.

In states from South Dakota to Texas where the fights are waged, supporters of a woman's right to abortion feel increasingly embattled. Some doctors and clinic personnel feel threatened, particularly since last week's slaying in Kansas of physician George Tiller, the nation's best-known abortion provider. Others say they simply feel beleaguered.

"The states are the battlegrounds and certainly the testing grounds of new kinds of restrictions," said Gretchen Borchelt, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, which defends abortion rights. "State legislatures can be more creative in what they're trying to push and see what works."

"We tried every which way, and we were successful in the state way," said Terri Herring, head of Mississippi's Pro-Life America Network. She calls ever-stricter regulations a matter of common sense and creative strategy.

"All-or-nothing means nothing," Herring said. "Incremental means something."

What it means in Mississippi, one of the most restrictive states in the country and a model for antiabortion forces elsewhere, is that a woman seeking an abortion must go twice to the clinic, at least 24 hours apart. A girl younger than 18 requires the consent of both parents or a judge's signature. Public money is available for very few abortions.

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