Reviewing Abortion Bills Around The Nation

Originally published on May 12, 2011 2:05 pm

Lawmakers in nearly every state this year have introduced measures that would restrict abortion, from cutting funding to providers to requiring waiting periods. Host Michel Martin continues today's conversation on abortion legislation with NPR National Correspondent Kathy Lohr, who has covered abortion issues for 20 years and says the current set of laws is the largest she has ever seen.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, from harrowing journeys to get here, to backbreaking work hours when they do get here, we'll hear about the struggles undocumented immigrant parents and their kids face. And those kids are, by the way, in many cases, American citizens, some four million American citizens are estimated to have undocumented parents. And there's a new study about how this affects their lives. We'll have more on that in a few minutes.

But, first, we return to our conversation about new efforts to restrict access to abortions. Lawmakers in nearly every state this year have introduced legislation that would restrict abortion in some manner. Yesterday, Indiana governor Mitch Daniel signed a measure cutting off the state's funding for Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health organization that performs abortion. The group has already challenged the measure in court.

We also just heard from two state lawmakers in Texas with very different views of a bill that will require doctors to do a sonogram at least 24 hours before performing an abortion and will require the doctor to describe the image to the woman seeking the abortion. Other states have measures pending. Some would disallow government funding. Some shorten the number of weeks during which a woman can get an abortion and some impose additional requirements such as a sonogram bill that we just heard.

NPR's Kathy Lohr has been following this legislation in a number of states. She's a national correspondent based in Atlanta. And she joins us now from her office at NPR. Kathy, thanks so much for joining us.

KATHY LOHR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, we just heard from those two Texas state lawmakers about the bill that would both require the sonogram and the waiting period. Are other states considering similar legislation?

LOHR: Well, actually, as you mentioned in that segment, Oklahoma was first to pass this kind of a bill last year. And that bill is being challenged in court. But there are other states that have passed ultrasound laws or ultrasound bills, but they don't require the ultrasound so much as allow patients to ask to see the ultrasound.

MARTIN: We also talked about the bill that was signed yesterday in Indiana by Governor Mitch Daniels that deprives Planned Parenthood of any state funding for any health service at all - and that bill's being called the most restrictive in the country. Why is that?

LOHR: Indiana is a catch-all bill. It would ban Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood. It would ban any kind of payments to clinics that provide abortions, which means that it would also possibly end other kinds of OB/GYN services - STD testing, family planning money. But that bill does a lot of other things. It bans abortions at 20 weeks, for example, which is another effort that's been making its way around the country since last year.

It changes the abortion counseling requirements in the state. It requires that every abortion provider would have to have hospital privileges. It just - there's so many things that are in that bill. So that's why I think it's been called the most restrictive.

MARTIN: You've reported that nearly every state has introduced some sort of abortion legislation this year during their legislative sessions. Some of which have already ended. But why is that? Why is there this big push this year?

LOHR: I think there's, you know, a couple of reasons. And it goes back to the 2010 elections where more Republican conservatives took over in state houses and in governors' offices across the country. And so while 2008 sort of ushered in this Democratic wave, then 2010 ushered in a Republican wave. And so more Republicans and conservative Republicans now control both houses in the states and also governors' offices.

So these legislatures have this renewed vigor and they are pushing for these abortion restrictions.

MARTIN: So supporters of abortion rights have been making the argument for some time, that abortion is not available anyway in many parts of the country, that there is a de facto ban because the restrictions are already so onerous. Is that really true?

LOHR: I think it depends on what part of the country you live in. If you live in a city, there is access to abortion. There may be issues that are being brought up - waiting periods, for example, where a woman would have to go back several times. But if you live in a city close to a clinic, that might be doable. If you live in North Dakota or South Dakota, maybe Mississippi, other parts of the South, there might be only one clinic operating in the whole state.

And that's where some of these restrictions are seen as really problematic. For example, a 72-hour waiting period that was passed in South Dakota this year, that would mean that perhaps women would have to come back twice, maybe even three times. And some people can't afford it, can't figure out what to do with their families. This is the argument that's made. They have other children. How do they take time off work? And, still, are they able to get the abortion? So in some cases that is the argument, that it's really being made unavailable.

MARTIN: Well, clearly there are aggressive efforts being made that do have real world consequences, you know, for some people. Where is the public on this question? It seems like, you know, political leaders are continuing to, you know, debate this and fight this out, using various mechanisms like funding and so forth. But has the public changed its mind about abortion in all of these years?

LOHR: I think that, you know, polls would show the public is very divided and that is why this has continued to be so controversial all these years. And that new GOP legislators would say they have the backing of the folks in their states to pass these bills. And certainly they do, because they're getting passed.

And it seems to be whenever a Democrat - whenever a Democratic president has been in the White House, at least over the last 20 years, there has been this push as well. So when President Clinton was in office, there was a push to enact more restrictions because he had considered himself a president that would support abortion rights. Same thing is true with President Obama. He had come out in support of abortion rights and here again we've seen this push to enact new legislation.

MARTIN: So, finally, Kathy, for those who are following this issue closely, as you are, what's the next place that we should look for new developments?

LOHR: Right now you have to look at Nebraska, which was the first state to pass this ban on abortion after 20 weeks on the basis that fetuses feel pain. And that law has yet to have been challenged. But several other states have picked it up this year. So, this issue is going to probably make it to the Supreme Court where both sides are looking at how they're going to proceed. And, in fact, that's why it hasn't even been challenged at this point, because the abortion rights advocates say they are looking for the right case in the right state. But, again, this is - would push back the time to when abortions are allowed.

MARTIN: Kathy Lohr is NPR's national correspondent. She's covered the legal and political issues surrounding abortion for two decades. And she was kind enough to join us from her office in Atlanta. Kathy Lohr, thank you so much for joining us.

LOHR: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.