States Seeking To Limit Abortion Rights To Unprecedented Degree In 2011: Report

In the wake of the election of a new wave of conservative state legislators, lawmakers across the country have advanced abortion-limiting legislation to an unprecedented degree, according to a new report.

Of the 916 measures related to reproductive health that have been introduced since January, a record 56 percent restrict abortion rights in one way or another, the Guttmacher Institute report found. In 2010, 38 percent of bills relating to reproductive health restricted abortion rights, according to the report.

"This is a big jump, and it says that anti-abortion legislators want to be very active on this issue and they have some momentum," Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, told HuffPost. "They used to chip away at Roe v. Wade, and now they're hacking away at it with a cleaver."

More than 120 bills limiting abortion rights have been approved by at least one chamber of the legislature so far, and the 15 bills that enacted into law include a bill in Utah that limits abortion coverage in all private health plans and laws in Utah and Virginia that require their health departments to develop new regulations governing abortion clinics.

Some states are making it exponentially more difficult, both financially and psychologically, for a woman to have an abortion. In South Dakota, a woman now has to wait at least 72 hours after seeking an abortion to have the actual procedure and is legally required to obtain counseling from a "crisis pregnancy center" -- which are unregulated by the state and have the explicit goal of talking women out of abortions -- before having the procedure.

South Dakota has also mandated that the physician performing the abortion counsel the patient in person about the health risk factors relating to abortion prior to her 72-hour waiting period. This limitation, in a rural state like South Dakota with very few abortion providers, can put an unnecessary burden on low-income women trying to balance work and childcare.

"In South Dakota, there's one provider and he flies in once a week, so in practice what would happen is that a woman would go on a Saturday or a Friday, get the counseling, and then have to wait at least a week for the provider to come back," said Nash. "They're saying the three day waiting period is no big deal, but it is, particularly for women who aren't well off and can't take off work and have to deal with childcare. A lot of burdens are placed on a woman when she has to make these two trips."

In addition to imposing pre-abortion waiting periods, legislators in 13 states have introduced laws forcing women to obtain an ultrasound procedure before having an abortion. Bills in seven of those states -- Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas -- would require the woman view the fetus and hear a detailed verbal description of it before undergoing the mandatory waiting period.

"This bill just allows them to see the child inside of them, so it's not just out of sight, out of mind," said Alabama State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Albertville). "It's critical in their decision-making process."

Conservatives are also trying to impose gestational limits on abortions at an unprecedented rate, according to the Guttmacher report. Legislators in 17 states have introduced 35 measures patterned on a 2010 Nebraska law that bans abortion at 20 weeks, based on the presumption that a fetus feels pain at that point. Two of those measures would ban abortions beginning at 18 weeks.

Nash, an expert on state abortion policy, said she sees the wave of new legislation seeking to roll back abortion rights as a result of several factors: the recent influx of conservative state legislators (Republicans picked up 20 state legislative chambers in the 2010 elections); the health care law, which spotlighted abortion as an insurance issue; and a few recent anti-abortion legislation successes at the state level that are serving as model legislations.

"Over the past several years, states have been successful in adopting some abortion restrictions, so they're building on that success and pushing the envelope on what new kinds of restrictions they can adopt," she said. "They want to make these restrictions even more onerous."

A spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America told HuffPost they are currently focusing on 374 anti-choice bills introduced so far in the 2011 legislative session, compared to a total of 174 in 2010.

"Anti-choice politicians in the states are mimicking the extreme, far-reaching agenda that Speaker Boehner and his allies are advancing in Congress," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL. "Much like their counterparts in Washington, state lawmakers have abandoned their promise to focus on jobs and the economy, and instead have opened the floodgates on a wave of bills that interfere in women's personal, private decisions."