Think Abortion Laws Are a Trend? You're Right. Here's Why.

PHOTO: A vigil organized by the National Organization for Women in front of the U.S. Supreme Court January 22, 2013 in Washington D.C. commemorates the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The expansive limitation on abortions recently passed in Texas garnered lots of media attention, but it's not an anomaly. In fact, it's part of a trend that has its roots in the 2010 election cycle.

"That's when Tea Party candidates were elected to state houses across the country," said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion laws. "And those elections shifted state houses further to the right, and in some states they've taken over the party and have a veto-proof majority. It's a significant change."

2013 is on track to see the second-highest number of abortion restrictions ever. There have been close to 50 restrictive laws introduced so far from North Dakota to Texas, Arizona to Pennsylvania.

In other words, it's not a regional thing. These laws are being passed across the country.

More than half the states in the nation have passed about 180 restrictions on abortion in the past three years. In the three years prior to the 2010 elections, just 70 restrictions were introduced, Nash said.

The number is not likely to drop soon, either.

"In 2012, many [Tea Party lawmakers] retained seats," Nash said, "and that's why we're seeing this into 2013, and we'll see it next year, too."

State legislators aren't working alone, however. They represent half of what has developed into a formidable anti-abortion storm front.

Abortion opponents have been working for decades to limit access to the procedure. But until now, they haven't had easy access to the legislative power to back up those attempts. That changed with the onslaught of the Tea Party. Mix together passionate anti-choice voices and real voting muscle that agrees, and it only makes sense that you get abortion restrictions.

Many of the restrictions, like the newly enacted ones in Texas, are aimed at abortion providers. The laws require them to observe strictures like put waiting rooms in their clinics and holding admitting privileges at nearby hospitals -- even if there aren't any hospitals nearby.

But clinics that currently perform abortions do so largely without complications, and critics of the laws say they are meant to outlaw the procedure, not make it safer.

Proponents of the laws have repeatedly cited the now-notorious case of Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia, as a rationale for the new restrictions. Gosnell is currently serving a life sentence for killing babies born alive during botched abortions. A woman under his care also died after she received too much anesthetic.

But Guttmacher argues that the Gosnell case is an outlier being marketed as a fear tactic.

"Gosnell was able to prey on low-income women seeking abortions not because of inadequate regulation, but because Pennsylvania authorities failed to enforce the regulations already on the books," reads a blog post on Guttmacher's site. "Using Kermit Gosnell as justification for laws that are not good-faith efforts to make an already-safe procedure safer, but instead aim to make legal and safe abortion care less accessible, is particularly cynical."

Twelve states have bans on the books for abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The 20-week ban is based on the medically disputed idea that a fetus can feel pain beyond that point.

Such laws have been successfully blocked in Arizona, Idaho and Georgia, and a judge just placed a temporary restraint on a Wisconsin law that would restrict abortion providers and require women to get an ultrasound before an abortion.

In May, a federal judge blocked an Arkansas law that would ban abortions at 12 weeks, and a judge just blocked a North Dakota law that would have enacted the nation's most stringent abortion restrictions. That law would have prohibited abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which can happen about six weeks into a pregnancy. That's well before many women even know they're pregnant.

Opponents who have taken such laws to court in the past few years have often walked away victorious. The landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade says abortions are permissible until a fetus is viable outside the womb, typically around 24 weeks.

So why not challenge other standing abortion laws that seem to violate that precedent?

It's not easy. Opponents have to find a person with standing, meaning someone who has been directly harmed by the law, to bring the case. Finding a woman willing to be the face of such a lawsuit is tricky, especially in conservative states where there is a negative stigma associated with abortion, an already emotionally charged issue.

Challengers also have to look at the judges and courts who will decide the cases and evaluate whether they think they have a chance of winning. Courts in the Southeast and Midwest are regarded as conservative, Nash said, and perhaps less likely to rule against the laws.

Legal challenges are also expensive and women's rights advocates have to triage which cases to bring.

"This is an ongoing trend and not one that will disappear in the foreseeable future," Nash said. "That's especially disturbing because not only are we talking limited abortion rights, but the states enacting them are not doing anything to reduce the need for abortions, like investing in family-planning and sex education. It's all about restricting access, not reducing need."

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