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.

Texas Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Ft. Worth) leads a rally in support of Texas women's right to reproductive decisions at the Texas state capitol on July 1, 2013 in Austin, Texas.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Jan. 21, 2014, 2:35 p.m.

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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