Republicans on Capitol Hill this week suffered an embarrassing defeat after being forced to drop legislation that would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But similar legislation is likely to advance in state capitols around the country this year.
Abortion opponents like the Susan B. Anthony List and Americans United for Life call the 20-week ban, dubbed the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in many states, their top priority in legislative sessions getting underway this month.
“The five month late term abortion limit is an important part of our premier legislative project,” said Ovide Lamontagne, general counsel at Americans United for Life. “Protecting a women from the health risks associated with a late term abortion as well protecting the interests of an unborn child who is so far developed as to feel pain is supported by a vast majority of Americans and is supportable under the law.”
While moderate Republicans in Congress convinced leaders to pull the measure over concerns it might make the party look too extreme, moderate factions in far more conservative state legislatures have much less sway.
This year, legislators in at least three states — Wisconsin, South Carolina and West Virginia — have already begun debating new measures.
A South Carolina House subcommittee unanimously approved its version of the law earlier this week, sending it on to a full House committee. A 20-week abortion ban passed the state House last year, but the Senate did not take it up before the session ended.
West Virginia legislators passed a 20-week abortion ban in 2014, when the chamber was controlled by Democrats. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) vetoed the bill. Republicans took control of both the West Virginia House and Senate after making gains and convincing Democratic incumbents to switch parties, giving the 20-week ban new life this year.
Anti-abortion rights groups in Wisconsin are working with legislators to craft their own version of the bill, supporters said this fall. Gov. Scott Walker (R), who is considering a presidential bid, has signed measures restricting abortions in the past, though he and Republican legislative leaders have been cautious about weighing in on controversial legislation this session.
“There is growing momentum at the state level to enact commonsense health and safety regulations,” Lamontagne said. “We believe that the five-month late-term abortion ban is but one manifestation of the public policy favoring commonsense health and safety standards for abortion providers.”
Abortion rights supporters say the pushback that forced congressional Republicans to drop the 20-week abortion bill is a preview of what’s to come if states take up the same measure. Members of Congress, including Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), warned that taking up legislation just a few weeks into the new Republican majority would revive uncomfortable associations with arch conservatives like former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and others.
“The total debacle this week showed what happens when the GOP makes banning abortion their top priority: Women revolt,” said Jessica McIntosh, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, a pro-abortion rights group that helps steer campaign contributions to Democratic women.
The pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute says 10 states ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Another eight states ban abortions after a later number of weeks. Twenty-one states impose some constitutional limit on abortion after the fetus is deemed viable.
Republicans who made gains in state legislatures across the country are likely to advance other restrictions on abortion in legislative sessions this year, too.
At a rally Thursday in Topeka, marking the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) said he would sign legislation outlawing a procedure used to conduct about 8 percent of abortions in Kansas. Legislators may also consider a bill to ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Arkansas legislators are debating a measure that would require doctors to prescribe abortion-inducing pills to women in person, rather than by video conference. Legislators in Mississippi will consider increasing the minimum waiting period for obtaining an abortion from 24 hours to 72 hours.
Tennessee voters last year amended the state constitution to give legislators the power to regulate abortions for the first time, and Republicans will likely pass measures requiring mandatory counseling, a waiting period and stricter inspections of clinics where abortions are performed. Indiana legislators are debating a measure that would ban abortions for fetal disability or gender.
A rash of new laws restricting abortions flooded Republican-led states after the 2010 elections, when the GOP made similar gains in legislatures. But not all of those laws have withstood legal scrutiny: The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in December struck down a 2011 North Carolina law that required doctors to perform ultrasounds and describe sonogram images to women seeking abortions.
Other courts have struck down legislation banning abortions in Arkansas after 12 weeks, and a North Dakota law that could have restricted abortions after as few as six weeks.