States Enter Fierce Abortion Debate

At abortion clinics most women arrive with their mothers or friends. Some come alone. All are somber, and a few are in tears as they sit quietly in the waiting rooms. None is thinking about the Supreme Court or Roe vs. Wade.

In clinics from Nebraska to Alabama, these women seem oblivious to the growing battle over abortion rights, even after last month's landmark Supreme Court decision upholding the federal ban on "partial birth" abortion.

"They don't even know what Roe v. Wade is," said Diane Derzis, who owns an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala. "They don't care what Roe v. Wade is. Most of these women have grown up in a time when abortion has always been available."

But in legislatures across the country, the court's recent decision has reignited the fierce debate over abortion and galvanized activists on both sides. More than a dozen states have introduced legislation to further restrict abortion, while two states push to protect abortion rights.

Conservative lawmakers like Alabama's Henry Erwin say the recent decision shows the court is ready to allow tougher restrictions.

"That decision, I think, was a pivotal decision that energized not only me, but probably energized pro-lifers all over the country," Erwin said.

Since the decision, several states are poised to pass laws requiring clinics to offer women ultrasounds of their fetuses before performing abortions. Other states are debating whether clinics must tell women the fetus could feel pain.

Missouri lawmakers have imposed tough new regulations on clinics, and Oklahoma is considering a bill that would prevent state money and facilities from being used to perform abortions.

Clinics in states like Alabama already face a number of restrictions, including 24-hour waiting periods, parental consent requirements and state-mandated counseling that includes pamphlets with detailed pictures of developing fetuses.

Abortion rights supporters worry that more burdensome restrictions on abortion are just a matter of time.

"It just means more hoops we will jump through," said Derzis, owner of the New Women Healthcare Clinic in Birmingham. "I mean, these restrictions just don't stop women from having abortions. One of these days they will figure that out."

Some states, like Alabama and Missouri, are pushing it further, with legislation that would ban abortion altogether. Lawmakers in those states say the recent decision gave them hope that the court might some day overturn Roe vs. Wade and allow them to ban abortion entirely.

"The people of Alabama are ready to discuss it. They are ready to debate it," Erwin said. "They are ready to move it to the next level to see if maybe we have gone too far when we instituted Roe v. Wade."

Despite the sweep of last month's 5-4 decision, there's no indication the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe and allow states to ban abortion. The decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, emphasized that states have a role in the abortion debate and can make moral choices to restrict it. But it did not call the broader right to abortion into question.

Only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have said they would overturn Roe, which said the Constitution guaranteed a woman's right to an abortion. The court refused to overturn Roe in 1992 when it said states could not pass laws that imposed an "undue burden" on a woman's access to the procedure.

New Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito have not taken a position on whether they would overturn Roe. Kennedy refused to overturn it in the 1992 case, which was the last time the court considered the issue.

But states more friendly to abortion rights are taking no chances. New York and Rhode Island are considering laws to secure abortion rights if the court were to overturn Roe and leave it up to the states to decide. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada and Washington already have laws protecting a woman's right to abortion.

In the wake of the decision, Democrats in Congress also have introduced similar legislation, called the Freedom of Choice Act, which would protect abortion rights under federal law.

"I am hoping that it will be a wake-up call to people in this country and to make them aware that perhaps things are not as safe as they assumed they were," said Derzis, whose Alabama clinic was bombed several years ago. "This is something we have lived with for many years; abortion being safe and being here. I don't see women going back."

Even in places like Alabama, some lawmakers say while it's one thing to impose restrictions and discourage abortions, bans are not what voters want.

"It is a proud state. It is not a dumb state. We have some people who would like to see us go back, but I think we have lot more who want to see us move forward," Derzis said.

Erwin, who has introduced legislation to ban abortion except when the mother's life is in danger, concedes that chances of his bill passing are "slim."

"A lot of legislators would be very reluctant to send a message that we are not going to abide by Roe v. Wade," Erwin said. "If you put it at the state government level, it is still up in the air and a big area of debate."

In Alabama, conservative politicians, including some Republicans, said they would oppose any effort to ban abortion completely. They note that Alabama already has as many restrictions on abortion as any state in the country.

"I think we have enough restrictions and I do not support additional restrictions on peoples' right to choose," said conservative Democratic Sen. Lowell Barron, chairman of the Rules Committee, who supports restrictions on abortion. "I think that the majority of the citizens of my district and of this state believe in the family's right to choose."