TOPEKA, Kan. — Abortion opponents marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade today with workshops, prayers and calls for more legislation chipping away at the abortion rights the U.S. Supreme Court decision seemed to guarantee.
Many looked to Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has signed a series of tough, anti-abortion measures during his first two years in office. Much to the dismay of abortion-rights advocates, Kansas has been part of a wave in which states with Republican governors and GOP-controlled Legislatures enacted new restrictions on abortion providers.
Hundreds of abortion opponents gathered in Topeka for a rally with Brownback, who has called on lawmakers to create “a culture of life” and is expected to support whatever further restrictions they approve.
Abortion rights advocates have celebrated the Jan. 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision because it declared women have a constitutional right to abortions in some circumstances and prevented states from banning it. They observed a quieter anniversary — a reflection of the reality that it's far rarer for lawmakers to expand access to abortion.
Across the nation, many events were scheduled today by advocacy groups on the two sides of the debate. The National Organization for Women, for example, planned a candlelight vigil at the Supreme Court to commemorate the Roe ruling, which it supports. The annual March for Life, which traditionally draws several hundred thousand abortion opponents to Washington, D.C., is scheduled for Friday.
“It should be honored — not trying to find loopholes,” said Rep. Emily Perry, a lawyer and Democrat from the Kansas City suburb of Mission, Kan., who supports abortion rights. “I wish the amount of energy put into narrowing Roe v. Wade would be put into school funding or our budget.”
Kansans for Life, the most influential of the state's anti-abortion groups, plans to ask lawmakers to enact legislation ensuring that the state doesn't finance abortions even indirectly, such as through tax breaks or allowing doctors-in-training at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., to perform them on the center's time. The group also wants to strengthen a state law dictating what information must be provided to abortion patients, ban abortions because of the fetus’ gender and allow wrongful death lawsuits when a fetus dies because of an accident.
Republican lawmakers in North Dakota are pursuing a measure to ban “sex selection” abortions, while Alabama's GOP legislative majorities are looking to impose new health and safety regulations for abortion providers. Arkansas’ new Republican legislative majorities want to ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.
“I think more of America is becoming more pro-life,” said Dr. Melissa Colbern, who started a crisis pregnancy center in Topeka near the state Capitol last year. “I think maybe the culture is changing.”
In the four decades since Roe v. Wade, a series of court decisions have narrowed its scope. With each decision, lawmakers in multiple states have followed up by making abortions more difficult to obtain or imposing restrictions on providers.
According to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights think tank, 135 laws aimed in some way at restricting access to abortion were enacted in 30 states — most of them with Republican-controlled legislatures — in 2011 and 2012. More such measures already have been proposed in several states this year.
In Wyoming, for example, a pending bill would prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat is audible. A similar “heartbeat” bill is pending in Mississippi and one was debated but later sidetracked in Ohio last year.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry has told lawmakers that he expects more anti-abortion laws during the 2013 session to work toward his goal “to make abortion at any stage a thing of the past.” Anti-abortion activists have pledged to use every legal means possible to make obtaining abortions difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
But Kansans for Life, the most influential abortion group lobbying state lawmakers in Topeka, eschews proposals designed to set up a head-on legal challenge to the Roe v. Wade decision, fearing the U.S. Supreme Court might wipe out some of the gains seen by abortion opponents in recent years.
“We’ like to continue on our successful strategy,” Kathy Ostrowski, the group's legislative director, said during a pre-rally news conference. “We feel that we're making better strides that way.”
It's far rarer for bills strengthening access to abortion to be enacted these days, but there are some pending proposals. In their state of the state speeches this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo endorsed a bill that would further entrench the right to abortion in state laws, while Washington state's new governor, Jay Inslee, said he wants to enact a measure that would require insurers who cover maternity care — which Washington insurers are mandated to provide — to also pay for abortions. Both Inslee and Cuomo are Democrats.
“Forty years ago, the United States stood as an example to the rest of the world in recognizing a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion as a constitutionally protected right,” said Nancy Northup, president of CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “But the women in this country shouldn't have to rely on the courts to right the wrongs of their elected officials.”