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Conservatives Pushing for Abortion Restrictions on Federal, State Level

January 12, 2015 — Abortion-rights opponents are pushing more abortion restrictions this year after conservative lawmakers gained control of both chambers of Congress and two-thirds of state legislatures in last year's midterm election, Politico reports.

Push for Federal 20-Week Abortion Ban

Congressional Republicans have coalesced around legislation that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on the disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain at that point of development. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said that there is no legitimate scientific evidence showing that fetuses are capable of feeling pain at 20 weeks.

The House is expected to vote on such a bill (HR 36) on Jan. 22, the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision and the date of the antiabortion-rights March for Life. The bill would allow abortions after 20 weeks only in certain cases of rape and incest, and endangerment to a woman's life.

Meanwhile, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also plans to hold a vote on a 20-week ban sometime in the spring, according to aides and Republican senators.

While the bill is expected to pass the House, it likely will fall short of the necessary votes for passage in the Senate, according to Politico. While at least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), is likely to support the measure, several Senate Republicans could oppose it. Politico notes that Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) did not support the legislation during the last Congress.

Despite the measure's low chances of becoming law in the near future, abortion-rights opponents, including eight potential GOP presidential candidates, have largely united around the 20-week ban and believe the issue could help them politically.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said, "If you define these issues the right way, I think you get to a point where you really do have good, strong public support."

Supporters of abortion rights counter that conservatives' rhetoric on 20-week bans and fetal pain has been misleading. Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said that the legislation is equivalent to overturning "Roe v. Wade completely, period."

O'Neill added, "If you say 'viability,' that's the time where a fetus can live independently outside of the womb. That's 24 to 26 weeks. But most people don't know that. So when you just say, 'Oh, do you want to ban abortion at 20 weeks?' People go 'Yeah, that's really late!' No, it's not. And most people don't know that it's not late."

According to Politico, abortion-rights supporters plan to highlight the measure as an example of the GOP continuing to seek to limit women's rights and access to health care. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said, "The role of Congress should not be to deny women a medical procedure that they have decided with their physician is the right course of action. What Congress should be doing is working every day to reduce unintended pregnancies and keep women healthy" (Everett/French, Politico, 1/12).

Antiabortion-Rights Groups Pushing State Abortion Restrictions

In related news, antiabortion-rights groups are advocating for more state-level legislation that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, among other state abortion restrictions this year, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In the 2014 midterm election, GOP lawmakers took control of 11 legislative chambers that had been controlled by Democrats. Overall, Republicans now have control of 68 state legislative chambers, compared with 30 that are controlled by Democrats, according to the Journal (Campo-Flores/McWhirter, Wall Street Journal, 1/11). In addition, there are now 31 GOP governors (Politico, 1/12).

Specifically, National Right to Life Committee Director of State Legislation Mary Spaulding Balch said her group intends to advocate for 20-week bans in more states, including South Carolina and West Virginia (Wall Street Journal, 1/11). According to Politico, abortion-rights opponents are "bullish" that GOP lawmakers will also push for such bans in Wisconsin (Politico, 1/12).

In addition, Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest said her group, which drafts model antiabortion-rights bills for lawmakers, plans to support measures that would restrict the use of medication abortion, impose stricter regulations on clinics and require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, said that there have been antiabortion-rights measures filed in at least 10 states thus far and that more are expected. Such bills have included so-called "personhood" bans and legislation forcing physicians to show women seeking an abortion an ultrasound image of the fetus.

Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project, said that supporters of abortion rights "are definitely bracing for another round of attacks on women's ability" to choose to have an abortion (Wall Street Journal, 1/11).