Pro-life tsunami floods state legislatures
Dozens of new bills capitalize on measures that escaped legal challenges last year
Pro-life leaders say a nationwide surge in optimism is driving the wave of pro-life bills already introduced in the first few weeks of this year’s state legislative sessions.
The nearly 50 new bills include bans on dismemberment abortions and any procedure after 20 weeks gestation, fetal burial requirements, and bills that would defund Planned Parenthood.
“With the election of a pro-life president, with all of the gains that we made across the different states with last year’s election, I think we are very optimistic in passing laws that protect the unborn baby and their moms,” National Right to Life Committee’s Ingrid Duran told me.
Last year, lawmakers approved 60 new pro-life laws across the country, and leaders expect more of the same focus this year, simply with more energy.
Eric Scheidler, director of Pro-Life Action League, told me the surge of pro-life bills is a reaction to years of “elitist cultural bullying.” He pointed to President Donald Trump’s choice of pro-life advisers: Vice President Mike Pence, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions.
“It isn’t the person of Trump, but it’s the whole phenomenon and all the people around him and the people he’s appointed. That’s really what’s driving this optimism,” Scheidler said.
So far this year, legislators in Iowa, Virginia, New Jersey, and Florida have introduced 20-week abortion bans. Lawmakers in four states—Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and Rhode Island—have filed bills that would ban dismemberment abortions. And the Kentucky and Iowa legislatures will consider bills to defund abortion giant Planned Parenthood.
Laws restricting abortion already have momentum: The pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute reported last year that 288 bills—more than one-fourth of all pro-life laws passed since 1973—came after 2010.
“That’s when Obamacare was rammed through so cynically,” Scheidler said. “A lot of reason behind the pro-life laws was an attempt to reign in some of the pro-abortion measures of Obamacare.”
Until 2015, most pro-life measures addressed medication abortion, private insurance mandates, and parental involvement. Coinciding with the release of undercover videos revealing Planned Parenthood’s involvement in the fetal tissue trade, lawmakers began focusing on abortion facility regulations and the humanity of the unborn child.
Some states have only one or two pro-life bills introduced so far this year, while others have a whole stack. In Missouri, lawmakers filed dozens of bills targeting abortion, 22 for which Missouri Right to Life expresses support. The pro-life bills include a ban on abortions due to an unborn baby’s sex, race, or a diagnosis of Down syndrome; five bills addressing the sale or donation of aborted baby body parts; and a bill that would extend greater protections to embryos conceived through in-vitro fertilization.
In Iowa, where the most recent pro-life law (a parental notification bill) passed in 1996, state senators have introduced half a dozen pro-life measures. They include a bill that would classify unborn babies weighing at least 350 grams (0.77 pounds) as a “person,” and a bill that would make dealing in baby body parts a felony.
After they reclaimed the Senate in November, Iowa Republicans now have a trifecta—holding the state House, Senate, and governor’s seat for the first time in 20 years. Iowa Right to Life director Jennifer Bowen said the future looks bright for pro-lifers in her state. Iowa is “radically behind” other states in pro-life laws, she said, adding lawmakers now have a chance to close the gap.
“Planned Parenthood lost. Completely lost,” Bowen said. “I don’t think the reality has sunk in yet, that voters responded very, very strongly in Iowa. … In the short term, we’re seeing a lot of loud, histrionic hysteria that is quite distracting, but at the end of the day they have to realize at some point that this abortion-on-demand and without apology is not where Iowa wants to go.”
Some pro-life bills may be too aggressive to survive a court challenge. Those most likely to succeed will mirror measures passed last year that avoided court interference, Denise Burke with Americans United for Life told me.
“When we’ve got this great opportunity, we’re going to pass the tried and true, things that we know are constitutional and effective,” she said.
Aggressive measures include an Idaho bill to classify abortion as murder, a Texas bill removing abortionists’ medical licenses, and an Indiana bill that defines human life as beginning at conception, which would make abortion illegal.
But even if they can’t survive a gubernatorial veto or a court challenge, Scheidler said aggressive pro-life bills can be “a good teaching tool” for the pro-life movement: “It allows us to talk about how the healing art should be used for healing and not killing.”
So much pro-life momentum is especially remarkable after last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down a Texas law requiring abortion centers to meet ambulatory surgical center standards and abortionists to have hospital admitting privileges.
Pro-lifers at first feared the decision would have broad implications for regulating the abortion industry, but the focus changed in November.
“I think there’s increasing confidence among many pro-life allies and legislators that Hellerstedt may have a limited shelf life with the potential new Supreme Court,” Burke said. “So we’re seeing a lot of what we’ve seen in the last couple of years, but just with renewed vigor and enthusiasm.”
But not all states got a green light in November to push through pro-life bills. Oregon Right to Life director Gayle Atteberry told me state leaders “laid down the gauntlet” and pledged to fight the Trump administration’s pro-life agenda in the state.
Oregon Right to Life is promoting a few pro-life bills, including one that would ban late-term, sex-selective abortions. It’s also fighting a bill that would mandate insurance coverage for contraception and abortions and notification for religious organization employees that their contraception and abortions won’t be covered. Despite strong opposition to the pro-life cause, Atteberry remains optimistic: “God is working here, and we’re not going anywhere.”
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