President Obama’s reelection bid emphasized abortion rights more than any other presidential campaign in history, warning women that their reproductive freedom was at stake on Nov. 6.
But while Obama picked Supreme Court justices believed to support abortion rights and backed federal funding for Planned Parenthood, state legislatures quietly passed a record-setting number of restrictions over the past two years, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
As the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision turns 40 years old on Tuesday, the debate over abortion rages on in state capitals from Richmond to Phoenix.
“The front lines of defending those rights are really in the state capitols, while there’s a bit of a stalemate on reproductive issues at the federal level,” said Anna Scholl, director of ProgressVA, which opposed Virginia’s widely publicized new law requiring women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasound exams. “The states are where the decisions that affect women, the soccer moms in the suburbs, are really happening.”
The burst of antiabortion legislation followed the 2010 election, when Republicans picked up roughly 675 legislative seats, the biggest gain by either party in decades. The GOP controlled 26 state legislatures, and in most of those states, the governor’s mansions, too. “They really upped their numbers and hit the ground running,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
The Republican Party held onto its majority in most states in the 2012 election, offering abortion opponents no reason to slow down. But the success of President Obama and his allies in portraying Republican challenger Mitt Romney as an extremist who would “turn back the clock” for women serves as a cautionary tale to the 36 governors who will face reelection in 2014.
“Voters in these states are concerned about schools and jobs, and a lot of governors will be walking a tightrope trying to moderate their image,” Lake said. “They may decide to back off and not take the risk.”
That seems to be the posture of the Republican leadership in the Virginia Assembly, which faced a huge outcry over the ultrasound bill and new rules regulating abortion clinics last year. While a subcommittee last week declined to take up repeals of those laws, Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb said “there will be nothing else.”
“We certainly would have liked to see the Legislature move forward in advancing the cause of life, but there’s no interest,” Cobb said. “The sentiment is that we need to focus on other issues like education and transportation.”
Even if the Republican leadership sidesteps women’s health issues, there’s little doubt that abortion will shape the governor’s race in 2013, which will feature Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the national party, against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a leading abortion foe. Democrats are also expected to bring up the issue in Pennsylvania, where Republican Gov. Tom Corbett defended his support of an ultrasound bill saying, “You just have to close your eyes.”
While the antiabortion bills passed in Virginia grabbed the biggest headlines in 2012, 18 states restricted access to abortion services last year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Arizona led the charge with seven antiabortion bills, while Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin each enacted at least three measures.
In a sign that NARAL Pro-Choice America may be taking a more aggressive stance, the national abortion-rights group recently announced that its new president will be Ilyse Hogue, a former leader of MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group known for in-your-face tactics. “This is a critical moment to engage a new general of young people in the conversation about what choice means in a modern age,” Hogue said in a written statement.
Among adults younger than 30, only 44 percent know that Roe v. Wade legalized most abortions, a new Pew Research Center poll found. Mariah Humphrey, a 20-year-old student at George Mason University, said she didn’t know the name of the court decision “but I know women had to fight for that right.”
She and two other friends were walking through campus Friday morning on their way to a party celebrating President Obama’s inauguration. “I don’t have a personal connection to the issue of abortion, but I knew Mitt Romney was threatening that right and that was discomfiting that it might be taken away," she said. "It was a little scary.”
In the Pew poll, 63 percent said they do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, a level of support unchanged from surveys conducted 10 and 20 years ago. But the percentage of people who said abortion “is not that important compared to other issues” is on the rise.
“It’s a challenge and an opportunity for women’s health advocates because a lot of women aren’t aware of how those rights can be chipped away until they are nonexistent,” Scholl said. “We are looking to get back on offense because we’ve been really pushed back on our heels.”