On Abortion, the GOP Tacks Right

In March of 2012, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was in trouble. The Republican-dominated state legislature had passed a measure that would require women seeking abortions in the early stages of pregnancy to have a transvaginal sonogram—a procedure in which a wand is inserted into the vagina. Pro-choice activists jumped on the bill, calling it “state-sanctioned rape.” The outrage went national, and the conservative governor with aspirations to higher office backed off. A version of the sonogram bill did make it into law, but it does not specifically require transvaginal sonograms, just the better-known “jelly on the belly” type.

The debacle was only the beginning of Republicans’ problem with women voters. Two Senate candidates—most famously Todd Akin of Missouri—aired shockingly unscientific views about how pregnancy worked, generating a strong backlash from voters. Elsewhere, cuts defunding Planned Parenthood and women’s health programs only made the perception that Republicans are anti-woman worse.

After the 2012 election, several Republicans began suggesting their party should back off. In December, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal went so far as to suggest that birth-control pills should be sold over the counter. But rather than move to the center or stay put, the GOP in other states is becoming more extreme in its attacks on women’s health—and seeing greater success in curbing access.

In Virginia, Bob McDonnell insisted on amending a bill from the state legislature so that it would ban plans sold through Obamacare’s federal health-care exchanges from covering abortions. McDonnell’s move is small potatoes compared with laws North Dakota and Arkansas have passed in recent weeks. First, there was Arkansas’s ban on all abortions after 12 weeks (the newly Republican legislature overrode Democratic Governor Mike Beebe’s veto). Shortly thereafter, North Dakota went significantly further, banning all abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected—as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. While both laws will soon be hashed out in courtrooms, these are the types of measures that can be used to challenge Roe v. Wade, because they appear to directly violate Supreme Court precedent.

“We’ve seen abortion bans be introduced every year,” says Elizabeth Nash, the state policy manager with women’s health group the Guttmacher Institute. “The thing is no one ever took them seriously. This is the first time in a couple of decades that abortion bans are not only being introduced, but they’re passing. That’s a huge jump.”

Kansas has taken the lead in ever more creative methods of decreasing access. The state legislature has already approved a measure that institutes a number of new requirements for abortion providers. The measure prevents abortion providers from taking any part in public school sex-ed classes—Planned Parenthood has a vast education program—and spends pages listing every tax break for which nonprofit abortion providers might qualify, then bars them from each one. The provisions demonstrate “how far they’re going to try to stigmatize and ostracize and isolate abortion providers,” says Nash. “Someone literally went through every section of their tax code.” The bill also requires that abortion-counseling materials include untrue statements—such as that abortion can lead to breast cancer and premature birth in future pregnancies. While abortion counseling often includes similarly unscientific assertions, Nash says this is the first time it’s been legally required.

Perhaps most notable is the bill’s statement that life begins with fertilization. This isn’t an abortion ban at the same level as North Dakota's or Arkansas's but, as Nash puts it, “a warning shot over the bow.” Should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the statement positions Kansas to outlaw abortion. The bill has already arrived on Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s desk. Given his pro-life history, the governor will most likely sign it into law.

Women residing in these states hold a tenuous grip on their reproductive rights. Even before the legislatures passed the new anti-abortion measures, women in Kansas and North Dakota already faced enormous challenges to have an abortion. North Dakota only has one clinic that provides them. And Kansas’s only clinic just opened last week, four years after the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.

Abortion restrictions are an area in which states have traditionally looked to one another to find new methods of attack. For instance, Virginia isn’t the only state with a sonogram law; eight states require one. Similarly, Kansas’s rigid changes to the tax code or the requirement that abortion material provide false information to patients could also catch fire around the country. What’s started in a handful of places isn’t likely to stay within state lines.

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