OMAHA, Neb. — Inspired by a contentious Nebraska law, abortion opponents in five other states have won passage of measures banning virtually all abortions after five months of pregnancy.
The late-term bans — based on the premise that fetuses at that stage can feel pain, a view that has been disputed — are among a record wave of more than 80 restrictions aimed at reducing access to abortion, all of them approved so far this year in state legislatures. Other measures expand pre-abortion counseling requirements, ban abortion coverage in new insurance exchanges, and subject abortion clinics to tough new regulations.
With only a few legislatures still in session, each side in the abortion debate is now assessing the potential impact of the new laws. They may not drastically slash the overall number of U.S. abortions — 1.2 million a year at last count — but they have emboldened anti-abortion activists, angered abortion providers, and will likely make decisions all the more wrenching for women affected by the late-term bans.
"In almost every instance at that late stage, something has gone terribly wrong with what typically was a very wanted pregnancy," said Peter Brownlie, head of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. "What we see are parents in anguish over some type of medical condition — and these very cruel laws double or triple that anguish."
Kansas is one of the five states, along with Alabama, Idaho, Indiana and Oklahoma, that enacted abortion bans this year modeled after the groundbreaking fetal-pain bill passed in Nebraska in 2010. The Kansas ban is effective after 21 weeks, the others after 20 weeks. Exceptions are allowed when the mother's life is at risk or she faces severe physical impairment.
The bills depart from the standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court which allow states to limit abortions when there's a reasonable chance the fetus could survive outside of the womb, generally considered to be around 23 or 24 weeks.
Mary Spaulding Balch, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said she was pleased the late-term bans got attention from lawmakers amid widespread fiscal problems.
"If we have to pass them in 50 states — and that's the plan — we will do that," she said.
In Nebraska, only one woman has come forward publicly to say the fetal-pain law prevented her from terminating a pregnancy. Danielle Deaver of Grand Island said she was denied that option at 22 weeks after she learned the baby was nonviable, ended up going into natural pre-term labor, and gave birth to a girl who died after 15 minutes.
"It was very frustrating and added to our grief because the waiting compounded everything," Miss Deaver said in an interview earlier this year.
Anti-abortion activists acknowledge that some late-term cases can be difficult, but think the bans are warranted for the sake of the fetus.
"The abortion industry always likes to run to the hard cases," said Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life. "Yes, there are situations where tragedies occur, but that doesn't mean you allow the killing of unborn children beyond 20 weeks who can feel pain."
She contended that many women in the past who sought late-term abortions cited their own psychological concerns and were not faced with a fetal anomaly.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, estimates that only about 1.5 percent of all abortions in the U.S. take place after 20 weeks of pregnancy. That would be roughly 18,000 annually as of the 2008, the last year with nationwide figures, and probably only a few hundred, at most, in states enacting the new bans.
"It's very small percentage, but it's a lot of distress," said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state legislation for the Guttmacher Institute.
Critics of the late-term bans say other women in predicaments like Miss Deaver's may be forced to choose between traveling out of state to get an abortion or proceeding reluctantly with a pregnancy after learning the fetus has a severe anomaly.
For pregnant women in Kansas who want an abortion after 21 weeks, that could mean a trip to Colorado or New Mexico.
"Some people will probably just give up — the logistics, the expense seems overwhelming," Mr. Brownlie said. "But in general, if women have decided the best thing for their family is to end a pregnancy, they will go to great lengths to do so."