In January and February, as the country continued to grapple with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, state lawmakers introduced 384 anti-abortion bills, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute.
The sheer number of bills targeting abortion access so far in 2021 is notable. In the past decade, only one other year ― 2017 ― saw a comparable level of legislative action in the first two months of the year.
“Despite the historic challenges facing state legislatures, including a pandemic and economic recession, anti-abortion policymakers are instead focusing scarce time and resources on restricting abortion rights,” said Elizabeth Nash, associate director of state issues and author of the report, in a statement.
In Tennessee, for example, state lawmakers introduced a measure that would allow a man who gets a woman pregnant to request an injunction barring her from obtaining an abortion.
Eight abortion restrictions have already been enacted, including a measure in South Carolina that bans abortion after 6 weeks pregnancy, which is before many women know they are pregnant. The law has been temporarily blocked in court.
Similar bans are moving through legislatures in Idaho, North Dakota and Oklahoma. In total, more than 107 abortion bans have been introduced.
Another major area of focus is on regulating medication abortion, a method where patients take two medicines ― mifepristone and misoprostol ― to induce an abortion. About 40 percent of all abortions in the U.S. are performed at home using medication abortion, which can be taken up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Research has shown that medication abortion is safe and effective, and over 3.7 million women have used the method to end their pregnancies since its approval.
Still, under long-standing Food and Drug Administration regulations, mifepristone can only be dispensed in person at a doctor’s office, even though patients can take the medicine in the privacy of their own homes. This requirement ― long criticized as unnecessary by reproductive heath experts - came under additional scrutiny during the coronavirus pandemic as it became dangerous for people to travel and congregate in medical settings. In July 2020, a federal judge lifted the in-person dispensing restrictions, citing the risk of unnecessary travel, but they were reinstated by the Supreme Court in January.
The FDA is now under mounting pressure to eliminate the in-person dispensing requirement, and allow patients to get the drugs through the mail.
Likely in response to this development, more than a dozen bills have been introduced to limit medication abortion. Ohio has enacted a ban on the use of telemedicine to prescribe medication abortion, and other states are considering similar measures.
Over 50 bills involve new requirements that would interfere with patient access, such as requiring that doctors provide misleading counseling before performing abortions. In Indiana, Montana and South Dakota, so-called “abortion reversal bills,” which require physicians to tell women that a medication abortion can be reversed using an unproved experimental treatment, are moving through legislatures. Critics say such bills undermine the trusted doctor-patient relationship and force doctors to give potentially dangerous advice to women.
Other anti-abortion bills introduced this year seek to require patients to obtain an ultrasound or wait a long period before having an abortion.
While many of the measures introduced this year are likely to be blocked if enacted as they violate Roe v. Wade, which established the legal right to abortion, that’s part of the anti-abortion strategy ― taking a legal challenge all the way to the Supreme Court.
“The ultimate goal is to gut Roe or overturn it outright,” Nash said.