States Battle over Abortion

12 04 2011

By: Madeline Priest

Defend Life sign. Photo by Brian Keaney

Photo by Brian Keaney

Looking back at the abortion debate in the United States ten years ago, the majority of arguments were over Roe v. Wade and whether it should be overturned or not.  Debate was largely focused on legislation at the federal level.  In the last couple years, abortion has not only come to the forefront of American political discourse and debate, but it has done so largely on the state level, where much anti-abortion legislation has been passed, and quickly.  The question is why this shift from national to state has occurred, and what it means for the future of both the abortion debate, and whether it will end up fueling a more national, federal debate.

In 2010 and thus far in 2011, strict abortion laws have been passed in multiple states, mostly involving the viewing of sonograms and mandatory counseling of women before undergoing abortion procedures.  What is particularly interesting about the abortion debate shifting to the state level is how effective anti-abortion proponents have been.  The president of the Center of Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northrup, described the amount of anti-abortion legislation passed recently as “an avalanche.”  This flurry of anti-abortion legislation at the state level makes sense when one considers the statistic that 90 percent of pro-life legislation happens and is most successful at the state level, with other states often adopting the same legislation.   In regards to bills proposed concerning ultrasounds, there were 30 new bills debated this year in 17 states, an astonishingly high number.

This barrage of legislation concerning ultrasounds fits into the larger reframing of the abortion debate.  Pro-life proponents have shifted to the argument that concern is more focused on making sure women are fully informed before they choose to undergo an abortion or not (it is argued that women should have to see an ultrasound in order to be more informed and aware that they have that viewing option).  This is a departure from the popular argument from pro-lifers that they are protecting unborn children by stopping abortions from being performed.  There is speculation that this push for anti-abortion legislation at the state level will lead to an eventual reigniting of the showdown over Roe v. Wade, and the resurgence of abortion as a wedge issue in the upcoming 2012 elections.

With the abortion debate heating up on the state level, and as a result receiving increased media coverage, there is reason to believe that abortion will play a role in the 2012 elections, and that politicians will have to highlight the issue more than in previous elections.  It is speculated that all politicians on the state level will have to take a stronger stance on the issue of abortion, from gubernatorial to state legislature candidates.  This could lead to a potentially nasty debate on all levels of the political system, and could act as a major wedge issue in the upcoming elections.  While pro-life Republicans have been successful at passing legislation to restrict the accessibility of abortion on the state level, this may cause their party problems.  In swing states and districts where moderates swung Republican in the last election, these same voters may be pushed back to voting for the Democratic candidate due to their stance on abortion.  Now that abortion is being brought to the forefront of political debate, a politician’s stance relating to the issue will be under much more scrutiny than it was last election, and the potential to alienate voters will be heightened.  There is also speculation by some that just as abortion has come to the spotlight on the state level recently; it will swing back to the national level soon enough.

The battle over abortion has certainly heated up, and has received much greater media and political coverage than in recent years.  It seems as though this shift from the national to the state level is due to the fact that more restrictive legislation can get passed on the state level and pro-life advocates recognize this fact.  It will be interesting to see the future of this debate, and the implications it has for politicians, upcoming elections, and future legislation.

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