As state legislatures across the country wrap up their 2016 sessions, one of the most active areas of legislating hasn't been red-hot LGBT issues or immigration. It's been the decades-old issue of abortion.
And on that issue, social conservatives are on a roll. This year, antiabortion advocates passed some 30 laws in 14 states to make it harder for people to get abortion. Here are a few of the big numbers. A graphic of recent laws is here.
- Nine states introduced measures to ban all or most abortions. Only one, Oklahoma, made it to the governor's desk. The governor vetoed it.
- Three states have banned the most common method of second-trimester abortions (Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia), while 13 in all have tried. Louisiana's governor is deciding whether to sign a similar law.
- Two states, Louisiana and Kentucky, lengthened the waiting period to get an abortion.
- South Dakota and South Carolina voted to enact abortion bans after 20 weeks, making them the 16th and 17th states to do so.
- Indiana, which already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, made it illegal to abort a fetus because it is diagnosed with Down syndrome or because of its race or gender.
Antiabortion advocates aren't just celebrating one good year: 2016 marks the fifth straight year they've passed a large number of abortion restrictions. In 2011 alone, Republican legislatures passed some 92 laws limiting abortions. In total, the past five years account for a quarter of all abortion restrictions enacted since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.
Things are happening so quickly at the state level, some advocates for a woman's right to choose say they feel as if they can't keep up. "There are not enough attorneys to challenge all these restrictions," said Elizabeth Nash, a senior researcher with the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research group. In a statement, Dawn Laguens of Planned Parenthood said "these laws are part of a broader agenda to ban safe, legal abortion completely."
On that last part, Laguens might be right. The past five years have reshaped how a woman can get an abortion in many states. This legislative session has been no exception. It's also no coincidence that the broader political landscape shifted in Republicans' favor over these past five years.
Let's look more in depth at why antiabortion activists are having such a successful year and what it could mean for the future of the seemingly never-ending abortion debate at the state level.
The Republican wave that hasn't stopped (yet)
In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans absolutely dominated at nearly every level. Fueled in part by opposition to President Obama's Affordable Care Act, signed into law in March 2010, and the rise of the tea party, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives picked up 63 seats and regained the majority. It was the largest swing of power in more than half a century. GOP state lawmakers made out almost as well. Twenty legislative chambers flipped from Democrat to Republican that year. Since then, Republicans have only built on their majorities. They now control 69 of 99 chambers (though that could change) and 31 of the 50 governorships (that probably won't change as much).
And even though many of these lawmakers campaigned on jobs, the economy and the deficit, abortion soon became one of the issues du jour in Republican-controlled state legislatures.
Antiabortion advocates such as Mary Spalding Balch with the National Right to Life Committee say that's because the conversation around abortion shifted at the same time. At least three (contested) studies released in 2007 appeared to show that an unborn child can feel pain even without its brain fully developed. Shortly after, Nebraska started a trend of banning abortion after 20 weeks. In 2016, South Carolina and South Dakota became 16th and 17th states to ban abortion in the 20-week realm.
Whatever the reason for the sudden onslaught of antiabortion legislation, it has followed a similar pattern: Once one state legislature waded into new, uncharted abortion-restriction territory and emerged without a spate of lawsuits, a bunch of other states followed quickly.
The videos that stirred up the abortion debate even more
Then in July 2015, a game-changer in the abortion world: an undercover video purporting to show that Planned Parenthood officials were illegally selling fetal tissue of aborted babies for profit.
The antiabortion sentiment that had been simmering at the state level boiled over to Congress. Hard-line conservatives wanted to take away funds from the nonprofit women's health clinics, a process that almost led to a government shutdown. Female Republican lawmakers lined up in front of cameras to denounce Planned Parenthood and announce new legislation to restrict abortions. Planned Parenthood's president testified in front of Congress.
None of the furor in Washington manifested into new federal abortion laws. (This is Congress we're talking about, after all.) But it did renew antiabortion sentiment at the state level — in spite of the fact 12 GOP-led state investigations into Planned Parenthood found no evidence of wrongdoing. Eight other states declined to pursue investigations, because there wasn't enough evidence.
It didn't necessarily matter what Planned Parenthood was or wasn't doing, say antiabortion advocates. The videos, which show doctors talking about abortion methods over glasses of wine, are undeniably hard to watch. And that alone drew attention to their cause.
"I think the reaction to the videos was not whether or not a law had been violated," Spalding Balch said, "but the fact these children do have working kidneys and they do have a beating heart."
So, now what?
Abortion is one of America's most intractable, perennial debates. But it would seem that if one side could ever gain an edge, now would be the time antiabortion advocates have pulled ahead. So I asked Spalding Balch whether she thinks her side is finally winning.
Not yet, she said. They've managed to put a lot of restrictions on abortions, but they haven't found a way to stop abortion completely.
"We still have a long way to go to achieve full protection of the unborn child," she said.
Conversely, I asked Nash whether she thinks her side — the abortion rights advocacy side — is losing. She paused. Changing the political landscape would help a lot, she said. But so would persuading people who don't like where our country is headed on abortion to speak out.
"I think there's always a way to reach people," she said. "We just haven't figured it out yet."