Abortion takes center stage in state legislatures

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With 2019 well underway, states across the country have seen an increase in bills related to abortion, as pro-life advocates seek more success and abortion rights backers fear Supreme Court decisions.

"There is likely more activity this spring than there has been in many years. Perhaps ever. Each year in the past several years we thought the wave had crested. But it hasn't," Steven H. Aden, general counsel at Americans United for Life, told CNA April 8.

"There's a great deal of interest in laws that protect women from abortion's harms and risks, and that protects babies in the womb," he said.

Laws limiting abortion as early as 15 weeks into pregnancy have passed in Mississippi and Louisiana. At least six states have approved or are seriously considering legislation barring abortion based on the detection of the baby's heartbeat, six to eight weeks into pregnancy.

"All of this shows that states have a great deal of political will to protect life and to take different avenues to do it," Aden said. He credited a perception that the U.S. Supreme Court is "more open to abortion limits than it has been in the past."

"For the first time in decades you do not have a majority on the Supreme Court that is committed to seeing abortion as a fundamental right. You have a pro-life majority."

This has helped foster interest in pushing the limits, to see what cases the Supreme Court might take to decide whether and what kinds of new limits are constitutional.

"It's a very healthy thing," he said. "The Supreme Court will make its own decisions."

In January, controversy arose over a Virginia state bill that a sponsor admitted would allow abortion up through birth. The outcry was further inflamed when Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, suggested that if a woman in labor decided to abort and the baby was delivered alive, the baby would be "kept comfortable," given medical attention "if that's what the mother and the family desired," and "a discussion would ensue" between the woman and her doctor on what to do next. The bill ultimately failed.

Aden suggested there is a "strong response" to the "extreme pro-abortion bills" seen in states like Vermont and New York, where "abortion is being legalized, for all intents and purposes, any time up to nine months, for any reason, and paid for by state taxpayer dollars as well."

One such proposal is under consideration in Massachusetts, where the pro-abortion rights Republican Gov. Charlie Baker appears to have balked at a proposal to further strengthen abortion.

"I don't support late-term abortions. I support current law here in Massachusetts," Baker said, the State House News Service reports.

Abortion is currenty legal in Massachusetts after 24 weeks when the pregnant woman's life is at risk. However, the ROE Act would also allow for abortions explicitly in cases of threats to a woman's physical or mental health - a phrase that critics say has been interpreted broadly to essentially allow for abortion on demand - or "in cases of lethal fatal anomalies, or where the fetus is incompatible with sustained life outside the uterus."

Planned Parenthood has claimed about 92 House members and 22 Senate members as co-sponsors of the legislation, numbered H. 3320 and S. 1209. These backers include Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler and Speaker Pro Tempore Pat Haddad.

Jim Lyons, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, characterized it as an "extreme infanticide bill" that "removes all practical limitations on aborting unborn babies." The bill would mean "absolutely nothing would be done to protect or even comfort a baby who survives a late-term abortion," he objected.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston stressed that abortion involves vital questions of human dignity and cannot be described in "purely medical terms."

"While the procedure has significant clinical dimensions, there is also a human reality that deserves more adequate recognition at any stage of development. By depersonalizing the reality, the legislation dehumanizes the decision faced by women, their families and physicians," the cardinal said April 6.

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O'Malley said even those who back the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which helped mandate legal abortion nationwide, should oppose the state law proposals.

He criticized provisions that allow legal abortion in "all nine months of pregnancy;" ban requirements that abortions be performed in hospitals, even late into pregnancy; bar requirements to care for a child who survives an attempted abortion; and prevent any requirement that a minor receive parental consent before undergoing an abortion.

Haddad, one of the co-sponsors, still backed the bill.

"Late-term abortions are for very specific reasons that should be decided with a medical professional and the family involved," she said, according to the State House News Service. She objected said that women presently leave the state to seek abortion in cases of fatal anomaly.

"We're talking a fetus that can't survive outside the womb. We're talking about a fetus that has no future," said Haddad, denying the legislation constituted "abortion on demand."

For Aden, of Americans Untied for Life, pro-abortion legislation of "radical extremism" only produces "a strong reaction on the other side."

"You see many more states this legislative season looking to protect life at the earliest possible stages," he said. "That's why you see a lot of interest in personhood bills, a lot of interest in heartbeat bills."

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He suggested that pro-abortion rights advocates have been slow to see the importance of state legislatures and to recognize "what Americans United for Life and other pro-life groups have known for years: that politics is local, and that anything that happens in large part to move the ball down the field against abortion happens in state houses."

In strongly pro-abortion rights legislatures, he said, abortion advocates are "not really breaking new ground."

"They're just looking to solidify gains that have been in those places for many years," he said.

While New York's bill was, in Aden's view, one of the most radical, " the truth is I don't know what really more New York could do more to promote abortion.

"It pays for it with state Medicaid funds, there are virtually no restrictions on abortion facilities in New York, they make life very hard for pro-life pregnancy centers, and yet the numbers of abortions in New York have been dropping steadily year by year," he told CNA. "No matter what they do, it seems, the right to life and the commitment of many others to the culture of life is still winning, in New York and other places."

While the Republican Party has tended to support abortion restrictions in recent decades, with the Democratic Party strongly on the side of abortion, some Democrats have backed recent bills at the state level.

In early March, Tennessee State Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis was one of three Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote for a ban on abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, according to The Tennessean newspaper.

"This was the first chance I've had in 25 years that I had to go on record and say I disagree with abortion," said DeBerry, who has served in the House since 1995. The heartbeat bill in that state did not have the support of pro-life groups and the state Catholic conference, due to concerns it would be struck down as unconstitutional and further enshrine abortion in law.

Florida is considering a bill to require physicians to secure consent from a parent or legal guardian of a minor seeking an abortion before performing the procedure. More than half of U.S. states have such laws.

The Republican-controlled Kansas legislature has passed a bill requiring abortion doctors to tell women who take the two-part abortion drug regimen known as Mifepristone or RU-486 that the process can be reversed after taking the first pill, the Associated Press reports.

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