Debate Continues Over Abortion Waiting Periods


Five state legislatures are debating whether to follow the lead of 14 states that impose a waiting period on women who want an abortion, but pro-choice opponents blocked the measure in Colorado, Iowa and Virginia this year.

States where controversial legislation remains an issue are Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Iowa and Minnesota.

Commonly called "right to know," "informed consent" or "mandatory delay" bills, the proposals require that states give women seeking abortions information on the development of the fetus, risks associated with abortion and alternatives to it while imposing a full day's wait before the procedure.

The issue is not new. Twelve states already have laws requiring a 24-hour waiting period: Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin. Indiana and South Carolina have informed consent laws that mandate 18-hour and 1-hour waiting periods, respectively.

A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey cleared the way for waiting period laws when it upheld Pennsylvania's mandatory delay requirements. But in holding that no state could impose restrictions that are a "substantial obstacle" for a woman seeking an abortion, the Court also created a new standard, called an "undue burden," for measuring the constitutionality of anti-abortion laws.

Waiting period laws continue to be challenged. Montana's 1995 law was overturned by a Helena District Court judge in 1999. Kentucky's 1998 law is currently being challenged legally by the American Civil Liberties Union. Massachusetts and Tennessee laws are also on hold pending court action.

A report that studied Mississippi's 1992 waiting period law--the first of its kind to be enforced -- gave ammunition to both sides in the debate.

The debate centers on requiring a woman who goes to a clinic seeking to terminate a pregnancy to delay undergoing the procedure. Anti-abortion forces say that they want to give women a chance to stop and think about what they're doing. Pro-choice forces say that women do not undergo an abortion lightly, that it's insulting to assume that they haven't thought about their decision carefully by making them wait, and that the wait costs money --causing two trips to the doctor and thereby limiting access for poor and rural women.

Comparing numbers from a year before the Mississippi law came into effect with those from a year after it began being enforced, the report found a 10 to 13 percent drop in Magnolia State abortions. But it also found that abortions performed in the second trimester--a time with more medical risks than in the first twelve weeks--increased 39 percent and that the proportion of abortions obtained by Mississippi women in another state rose 37 percent.

"Waiting periods mostly affect poor and rural women. Fewer women will have access [to abortion] because they can't afford the waiting period. It's cruel. It's absolutely cruel. Middle and upper class women can deal with that [financial] hurdle," said Karen Raschke, director of state programs for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

Raschke said that 86 percent of all counties in this country have no abortion provider, which further complicates travel, cost and scheduling.

Supporters of waiting period laws disagree.

"These decisions most of the time are made in crisis. That 24 hours might just give [the woman] another opportunity to think it through," said Janet Parshall, spokesperson for the anti-abortion Family Research Council.

Parshall also challenged the cost argument.

"The cost of having to make a second trip pales in comparison to the cost of a life. This person [the aborted child] can't come back again," Parshall said.

Here's a state-by-state breakdown of what's happening on waiting period legislation this year:

  • Iowa's bill has gone the farthest--it awaits only the signature og Gov. Tom Vilsack, a pro-choice Catholic Democrat who has said he is leaning toward vetoing the law.
  • Minnesota's House and Senate have passed seperate versions of a waiting period bill, and a legislative conference committee is now fashioning a compromise version.
  • The Alabama House approved a 24-hour waiting period last week and sent the bill to the State Senate, where similiar measures have died previously.
  • An Alaska bill passed the House Health, Education and Social Services Committee and has been referred to the House Judiciary committee. It has not been debated on the House floor.
  • Delaware has a waiting period bill stalled in a House committee.
  • Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, who backed a right-to-know bill in his state, was defeated when a Senate committee quashed the bill last month. A Virginia Senate panel killed a similar bill last year as well.
  • Colorado's House also killed its "Women's Right to Know Act" in committee.

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