Efforts to overturn abortion rights entirely through state ballot initiatives giving the unborn the rights of a person have failed repeatedly, most recently in November in North Dakota and Colorado. The more effective challenges have been less frontal. In November 2013, for instance, after a new law in Texas began requiring that clinics meet stricter building codes and that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals, 19 facilities stopped performing abortions, leaving 22 in the state. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Texas to stop enforcing some of its provisions in October 2014, pending the appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional. The Texas law is a case study in the way abortion opponents have changed strategies, opting for legislative action over the clinic blockades and violence of the past. Through 2013, states had approved 205 abortion restrictions since a Republican-led state-legislative push began in 2011 — more than had passed in the prior decade. During that time more than 70 clinics closed or stopped offering the procedure. Laws aimed at clinics are proving more potent than those aimed at patients, such as waiting periods or parental notification requirements. In 2014, abortion-rights supporters began to push back, introducing more state-level, pro-abortion bills than at any time since the early 1990s and challenging restrictive laws in court. Judges have blocked enforcement of such measures, pending further legal rulings, in Wisconsin, Mississippi, Alabama and Oklahoma. As 2014 came to a close, a U.S. Court of Appeal struck down a North Carolina law requiring doctors to give ultrasound presentations to women before performing abortions.
Abortion has persisted as a hot-button issue in U.S. politics since the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalized it in all 50 states. The groundwork was laid to undermine that ruling in 1992, when the high court said states could pass restrictions that don’t present an “undue burden” to women seeking the service. Courts are now clogged with challenges to laws testing just what that means. The ranks of clinics have been thinning since the late 1980s, when the number of nonhospital providers performing 400 or more abortions per year peaked at 705; by 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, that number had fallen to 553. The abortion rate hit an all-time low since Roe of 16.9 per 1,000 women in 2011.
Both sides of the abortion debate have a stake in the proposition that restricting access to clinics is holding abortion rates down. Health experts and social scientists say that is just one factor. Increasing cultural acceptance of single motherhood, the recession (which was accompanied by a decline in pregnancies) and more (as well as more effective) contraceptive use are also behind the drop. Almost half the 6.7 million pregnancies each year are unintended, and almost half of these end in abortion. One study concluded that if 31 states outlawed abortion tomorrow, the vast majority of women would still travel to states where it remained legal. But the impact on those unwilling or unable to travel could still produce a 15 percent drop in abortions nationally and as much as a 4.2 percent rise in the birth rate. As access diminishes, abortion rights advocates argue, more women will resort to dangerous and illegal pre-Roe means to avert motherhood. After the Texas law went into effect, an illegal trade in pills that can induce a miscarriage emerged in flea markets in the southwestern part of the state.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg News articles about abortion.
- The Guttmacher Institute researches and compiles medical statistics and legislative history about abortion.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects data from most states for its abortion surveillance project.
- The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists offers a resource guide for abortion, including medical guidelines and research.