Why Have So Many States Banned Abortions?

PHOTO: Attendees listen during a candlelight vigil organized by the National Organization for Women in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 22, 2013 in Washington D.C. The vigil commemorates the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Abortions are becoming illegal in America at a rapid clip.

Last week, Arkansas passed the nation's most restrictive abortion law, enraging abortion-rights supporters and sparking plans for a court challenge. But that law followed a wave of legislation in the last three years: Since 2010, 10 states have passed outright bans on abortions for women who have been pregnant for more than 20 weeks, and in some cases earlier.

Read more: Activists Will Challenge Arkansas's New Abortion Limit

Before 2010, no states banned abortions outright at any stage of pregnancy. Nebraska started the trend with a 20-week abortion ban in April 2010. In 2011, Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, and Oklahoma followed suit, and in 2012, Arizona, Georgia, and Louisiana passed curbs of their own. Last week, Arkansas became the first state to approve an abortion ban this year.

Abortion-rights activists are worried about a ban under consideration in North Dakota, plus a continuing wave of regulations on abortion clinics that, activists say, have forced clinics to close by making it impossible for them to operate. More of those regulations have advanced in recent years, too, opponents warn.

This new curbs come four decades after the nation's landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion was decided.

"This January marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Our movement should be dead," said Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the national anti-abortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List. "You would think after 40 years, we would just sit back, but I think what we're seeing is this passion at the state level."

So, why is that?

The short answer is that during the last two elections—big years in national politics, marked by a wave of Tea-Party House and Senate gains in 2010, and by President Obama's reelection over Mitt Romney in 2012—Republicans have taken over more state legislatures and governors' mansions across the country, turning some red states redder and flipping some purple states into their column.

It's not that abortion bills are new, according to activists on both sides of the issue: It's that GOP gains in state politics have cleared the way for pro-lifers to advance their agenda.

"This latest wave of legislative attacks on a woman's right to choose came about because anti-choice politicians won elective office in 2010 and 2012," said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. Anti-abortion legislators have been pushing bills to limit abortion rights for 20 years, Crane said, but GOP gains in the last two elections have "pulled the goalie," in Crane's words, removing Democratic governors and legislative majorities and allowing socially conservative lawmakers to enact new laws.

Combined with two major court cases that shifted the legal standards for limiting abortions, GOP gains at the state level have made it easier for groups like Americans United for Life (AUL), a national anti-abortion group that drafts model legislation in Washington, D.C., and works to pass it through state legislatures.

"It grew exponentially after the shifts in the legislatures after 2010," said Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for AUL. "But it did not begin there--it's been going on since Casey," a 1992 Supreme Court case involving Planned Parenthood.

Of the nine states that passed abortion bans since the 2010 elections (Nebraska's law came before), five saw Republicans gain full control of the governor's mansion, the state House and the state Senate in 2010. In Arkansas, Republicans took over both houses of the state legislature, while Democrat Mike Beebe retained the governorship. He vetoed the state's recent 12-week abortion ban, but the GOP-controlled legislature overrode his veto to enact it. And after the 2012 elections, pro-choice activists worry about more bans to come.

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