States Play Key Role in Abortion Debate


Three decades after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the landmark decision Roe v. Wade, the impassioned and often-bitter debate over abortion rights still tops state legislative agendas.

Rarely seeing eye-to-eye, abortion adversaries do agree states play an important role in shaping the national dialogue. Last year, 26 states adopted legislation restricting abortion; 13 states adopted so-called pro-choice measures.

"The legislation that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, including the legislation that legalized abortion, has all come from the state level," said Sara Love, an official of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that champions a woman's right to control her reproductive decisions.

With Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress, abortion rights advocates fear Roe v. Wade could be overturned if a Supreme Court vacancy opens up, since President Bush would be likely to select a conservative, anti-abortion nominee to fill it. The high court divided 5 to 4 on the landmark abortion ruling and the same narrow majority for abortion rights has decided most legal issues flowing from it.

If Roe v. Wade were overturned, 17 states might ban abortion in some or all cases, a recent NARAL report said. "What's happening in the states isn't ignored at the federal level because that's what eventually bubbles up to the federal level," said Mary Spauldingbalch, director of state legislation for the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion organization based in Washington, D.C.

This so-called "trickle up" effect can influence Congress and federal abortion policies, said Kristie Rutherford, director of state and local affairs at the Family Research Council, another D.C.-based anti-abortion lobbying group.

"There's a lot of pro-life legislation out there (in the states) this session. Conservatives have made a lot of gains," Rutherford said, referring to last year's mid-term elections when Republicans strengthened their influence in state legislatures.

So far this year, more than 100 bills regarding abortion rights or restrictions have been introduced in 24 states, said Leah Oliver, an official at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

NARAL frequently cites a proposal in Georgia, where state Rep. Robert Franklin (R-Marietta) would require a woman seeking an abortion to obtain a "death warrant" from a state court. The bill also proposes that no doctor could perform an abortion procedure, termed in the bill as an "execution," without such a warrant.

"There are so many things that are hideous about this bill. It's humiliating that a woman would have to go to court to obtain an abortion, even pre- Roe versus Wade she wouldn't have had to do that," Love told

But the bill hasn't garnered much support from Franklin's fellow abortion opponents, who favor "informed consent" legislation. It would require that a woman who wished to abort be given state-mandated information about medical risks of the procedure and force her to wait to undergo it for 24 hours.

Lawmakers in at least seven other states intend to propose similar legislation, Rutherford said. Legislators in eight states plan to introduce "parental consent" or "parental notification" measures that would require a woman's legal guardian to be informed or grant permission for the procedure.

Virginia lawmakers have introduced several bills that would ban so-called partial-birth, or late-term abortions. Lawmakers in Colorado and Wisconsin may also try to ban the procedure, Rutherford said. Legislators in two states North Carolina and Iowa plan to introduce legislation that would ban state funding of abortions.

Lawmakers in some states like California, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Oregon, Hawaii and the District of Columbia are working on legislation to expand reproductive rights by requiring health insurers to cover contraception and pregnancy termination, Love said. 


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