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Why Democrats Can't Roll Back Abortion Restrictions Why Democrats Can't Roll Back Abortion Restrictions

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Why Democrats Can't Roll Back Abortion Restrictions

On the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions, opponents find comfort in GOP majorities in state legislatures.

Democratic Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis(Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

photo of Beth Reinhard
January 21, 2014

Abortion clinics that are marking Wednesday's anniversary of Roe v. Wade by calling on Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to protect abortion rights have every right to expect a sympathetic ear. The Democratic governor put the issue at the forefront of his campaign last year, and Planned Parenthood spent roughly $2 million to help McAuliffe and two other Democrats sweep the statewide offices for the first time since 1989.

But will that mean a rollback in new regulations curtailing abortion rights for Virginia women? Hardly.

State laws requiring abortion clinics to undergo stricter regulations and patients to get ultrasounds aren't going anywhere because Virginia's House remains firmly in Republican hands.


GOP majorities in state legislatures across the country will act as bulwarks against any efforts to repeal the record-setting number of abortion limits passed since the 2010 Republican wave. The GOP holds the governorship and both legislative chambers in 23 states. So even if a handful of promising Democratic challengers in those states pull off victories in 2014, they would be just as hamstrung as McAuliffe, if not more so.

"It is going to be very difficult to roll back those restrictions until we have a wave election in the other direction," said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, Third Way's director of social policy and politics. "They've locked in some pretty damaging majorities. As McAuliffe is now seeing, it's going to take a lot to unravel what's been done in the last few years."

More abortion limits have been passed since the 2010 election than in the entire previous decade, according to a recent analysis by the Guttmacher Institute. Last year, 22 states passed 70 provisions restricting access to abortion. That makes 2013 second only to 2011 in the number of new abortion limits enacted in a single year.

"The pendulum swung so far to the right in the 2010 midterm that it will start swinging back in 2014, but this isn't the year of repeal," said the Guttmacher Institute's Elizabeth Nash.

That's not going to stop Democratic candidates from campaigning heavily on abortion rights—in part, because it's good politics in some states. McAuliffe's relentless attacks against his Republican opponent for opposing abortion rights paid off with a 9-point gender gap on Election Day. Even more stunning was McAuliffe's 42-point lead over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli among unmarried women.

No wonder abortion is emerging as an issue in 2014's important gubernatorial races.

Ohio Democrat Ed Fitzgerald has called the antiabortion laws enacted by Republican Gov. John Kasich "the most egregious," and last week he tapped a prominent abortion rights supporter, Sharon Neuhardt, as his running mate. Michigan Democrat Mark Schauer is expected to make the Republican "war on women" a major line of attack in his bid to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, according to media reports.

In Wisconsin, Democratic candidate Mary Burke has criticized a bill signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that requires women to get an ultrasound before ending a pregnancy. And in Florida, Democratic candidate Charlie Crist indicated in a campaign video that he will hold Republican Gov. Rick Scott accountable for attacks "against women and their doctors."

Abortion is also expected to play a role in the governor's race in Texas, where Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis made a name for herself filibustering a crackdown on abortion clinics, and in Pennsylvania, where Democratic front-runner Rep. Allyson Schwartz ran a clinic before her election to Congress.

But in every one of these states with competitive gubernatorial races—Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin—Republicans control both legislative chambers.

"I see no reason to worry at this point," said Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List. "In places where state legislatures are dominated by pro-life members, we're not going to stop."

(In fact, the antiabortion movement is planning to go on offense this year as part of the effort to help the Republican Party take over the Senate. Red-state Democrats like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Mark Begich in Alaska will be assailed as pro-abortion-rights extremists if they don't support a proposed ban on abortion after 20 weeks.)

At his inauguration earlier this month, Virginia's McAuliffe recalled his campaign pledge when he promised to "ensure that every woman has the right to make her own personal health care decisions." But he's been mostly focused on expanding the Medicaid program for the uninsured poor under President Obama's health care law. Abortion-rights activists in the state acknowledge that the new Democratic administration has little power to repeal the abortion restrictions enacted under former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

"We now have three statewide officers that we can depend on to be bulwarks against new attacks on women's health, but we have a lot of work to do in the Legislature to repeal laws that have already gone through," said Anna Scholl, director of the liberal advocacy group ProgressVA. "It will be an uphill battle."

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