12:46pm

Tue May 10, 2011
Around the Nation

GOP Lawmakers Push For Stricter Abortion Laws

Across the country, recently elected GOP lawmakers are pushing hard to get new abortion restrictions on the books. About 570 bills have been introduced in 48 states this year to restrict abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the laws.

In Texas, the legislature passed a bill that requires women have an ultrasound before an abortion and requires doctors to provide a verbal description of the fetus.

"The law was written to require that women undergo a sonogram 24 hours before an abortion and we know anecdotally that most of the time when women see their unborn child, 70 to 80 percent of the time end up continuing their pregnancy and choosing life," says Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life.

Texas Right to Life pushed the ultrasound bill for five years, but Graham says this session was different.

"There's an overwhelming pro-life majority in the state house and then, the fact that the governor drew more attention to the bill and put it on his own agenda was helpful," she says.

Oklahoma passed a similar bill last year, which is being challenged in court. This year, four other states have passed ultrasound laws saying doctors must offer women the opportunity to see the image or hear a description of the fetus.

New Republican legislators in many states and newly elected GOP governors have made this issue a top priority. A new South Dakota law requires an unprecedented 72-hour waiting period before an abortion and several states are debating bills to ban abortion at 20 weeks.

"We're seeing bills coming through that are some of the most extreme we've seen in years," says Nancy Northup, whose group the Center for Reproductive Rights filed suit to keep the Oklahoma ultrasound law from taking effect.

"It's blocked until the trial goes forward," she says. "And we're seeking to show that that law is unconstitutional. And we're getting ready to sue in Texas because these laws don't trust women to make the decision that the United States Supreme Court has said women are allowed to make."

In Iowa, GOP lawmakers are trying to force debate on a bill that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks based on the theory that fetuses feel pain. Republican legislators say there's urgency in part because they're trying to keep a Nebraska doctor from opening a clinic in their state.

"Iowans' sense of decency and compassion and our common humanity dictate that we as a state protect these vulnerable individuals," said Iowa Rep. Mary Hanusa recently on the House floor.

The strategy was successful last year when Nebraska became the first to enact a 20-week ban. More than a dozen states have introduced similar bills this year.

Jenifer Bowen with Iowa Right to Life says although few later abortions are reported in the state — the bill is vital.

"We want to see a day when abortion is ended and, you know, this is a pretty good start in that direction," she says.

But Jill June with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland calls the laws "bad laws."

"They're dangerous bills for women because they take nothing into consideration regarding the health and welfare of the woman," she says. "It's very sad. It's very political. It's very misguided."

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed states to enact restrictions and even bans after a fetus is viable, but the Nebraska law sets a new standard and has not been challenged. Anti-abortion activists say that's because the issue of fetal rights would likely end up at the nation's highest court where they predict they'd win. But abortion rights supporters including Nancy Northup say they're looking for the right circumstances to challenge the 20-week ban.

"We don't jump just because the anti-choice movement says jump," Northup says. "We're not going to file a legal challenge just because our opponents try to bait us to do so."

Still, she insists the 20-week ban is unconstitutional. But that hasn't stopped lawmakers in Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma from adopting the measures. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.