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States advance waves of bills limiting abortions

GOP victories will help passage; many include layers of restrictions

- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NEW YORK | Dozens of bills are advancing through statehouses nationwide that would put an array of new obstacles — legal, financial and psychological — in the paths of women seeking abortions.

The tactics vary: Mandatory sonograms and pro-life counseling, sweeping limits on insurance coverage, bans on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. To pro-choice activists, they add up to the biggest political threat since the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which legalized abortion nationwide.

"It's just this total onslaught," said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state legislation for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research organization that supports abortion rights.

What's different this year is not the raw number of anti-abortion bills, but the fact that many of the toughest, most substantive measures have a good chance of passage due to gains by conservative Republicans in last year's legislative and gubernatorial elections. On Tuesday, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed into law a bill that imposes a longest-in-the-nation waiting period of three days before women may have an abortion — and also requires them to undergo counseling at pregnancy help centers that discourage abortions.

"We're seeing an unprecedented level of bills that would have a serious impact on women's access to abortion services that very possibly could become law," said Rachel Sussman, senior policy analyst for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

On the other side, pro-life strategists such as Mary Spaulding Balch of the National Right to Life Committee have been scrambling to keep up with legislative developments. "Until the bills get on the governors' desks, it's premature to claim victory. But it's moving faster than it has in previous years. … We're very pleased with the progress thus far," she said.

In a number of states, lawmakers are considering bills that would ban elective abortions after 20 or 21 weeks of pregnancy. These measures are modeled after a law approved last year in Nebraska that was based on the disputed premise that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks.

The Idaho Senate approved one such bill Wednesday. Similar bills have made progress this session in Kansas and Oklahoma.

In Ohio, there has been a hearing on an even tougher measure that would outlaw abortions after the first medically detectable heartbeat — as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. At that hearing, two pregnant women underwent ultrasounds so lawmakers could see and hear the fetal hearts.

The Ohio bill and the bans on abortions after 20 weeks are direct challenges to the legal status quo, based on Supreme Court rulings that permit abortions up to the point of a fetus's viability — approximately 24 weeks — and allow states to impose restrictions for abortions after that stage.

In Texas, a bill passed by the House would require that pregnant women have an opportunity to view a sonogram image, hear the fetal heartbeat and listen to a doctor describe the fetus. While the doctor would be obligated to provide the information, the woman could close her eyes or cover her ears, according to the bill, which doesn't exempt victims of rape or incest.

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