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'Fundamental culture change' on abortion: Conservatives make gains on restrictions

Sarah Cole / AL.com via AP file

People opposing and supporting abortion rights demonstrate outside the Alabama Women's Center for Reproductive Alternatives in Huntsville in February.

When Virginia approved restrictions that could force abortion clinics to close, it joined a rapidly growing list of states that are energizing social conservatives by making it more difficult for women to terminate pregnancies.

Four other states have tightened abortion restrictions in less than two months — part of what abortion-rights groups say is an alarming trend since Republicans swept the 2010 elections. The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday called the Virginia restrictions “excessive and inappropriate.”

Anti-abortion groups see evidence of a break between the relatively stable politics of abortion at the national level and the action in the states.

“There’s a fundamental culture change going on,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion political candidates. She called the recent restrictions “common-sense, common-ground” measures.

“The middle ground is exactly where most people are,” she said in an interview. “They want to see clinic regulation. They want to see parental notification. They don’t like late-term abortions.”

Arkansas legislators, overriding the Democratic governor, banned abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy. The Kansas legislature blocked certain tax breaks for abortion providers and declared that life begins at fertilization.

Julie Bennett / AL.com via AP

Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, back left, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, second left, and others applaud as Gov. Robert Bentley signs an abortion clinic regulation bill on April 9.

Alabama enacted a law last week requiring abortion doctors to have permission to perform the procedure at local hospitals, challenging a practice under which clinics bring in physicians from out of town.

And in late March, the governor of North Dakota signed the toughest abortion law in the nation — a ban on abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, a restriction that even some abortion opponents say is designed to provoke a court challenge.

“Although the likelihood of this measure surviving a court challenge remains in question, this bill is nevertheless a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple said.

In Virginia, the Board of Health on Friday voted 11-2 to require abortion clinics to meet the same architectural standards required of new hospitals. Abortion-rights groups say the standard is clearly designed to be so costly that clinics will have no choice but to close.

“This is a blatant attempt to impose a backdoor ban on safe, legal abortion care,” said Caroline O’Shea, deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, which supports abortion rights.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that studies reproductive health, reported this week that 694 state provisions on reproduction have been introduced this year, about half of them to restrict abortion.

Among those are provisions in 14 states seeking to ban abortion before the fetus is viable. In recent years, the institute said, lawmakers had focused on regulating abortion, such as requiring ultrasounds for pregnant women.

“Legislators this year seem to be focusing on banning abortion outright,” it said.

Grisly Philadelphia case
Conservative bloggers, including at RedState and National Review, have lashed out this week at national media organizations for not paying enough attention to the gruesome trial of a Philadelphia abortion provider accused of killing seven late-term fetuses after they were born alive.

The doctor, Kermit Gosnell, faces the death penalty if convicted. Prosecutors say he killed some of the fetuses by plunging scissors into their necks and snipping the spinal cord.

Stephen Massof, an unlicensed medical school graduate who worked at the clinic, testified last week that women were sometimes given medicine to speed deliveries and “it would rain fetuses. Fetuses and blood all over the place.”

The accelerated restrictions on abortion come at a time when Americans have deeply mixed feelings about the procedure.

An NBC/WSJ poll showed 52 percent of Americans say abortion should be illegal with or without exceptions. Former Gov. Ed Rendell and Republican strategist Chip Saltsman debate what that means for their parties.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday found that 52 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal with some or no exceptions, compared with 45 percent who believe it should be legal most or all of the time.

Those figures have been roughly unchanged over the past decade, although the same poll found in January that only 44 percent believed it should be illegal with some or no exceptions.

Still, that January poll, timed at the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a limited right to abortion, found that seven in 10 Americans wanted it to stand, the highest figure since 1989.

Giving ground
The state restrictions have been enacted while national Republicans have given ground on other cultural issues.

Two Republican senators have announced support for gay marriage. Republicans are working with Democrats on a way to establish some path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

And on Thursday, 16 Republican senators joined most Democrats to overcome a threatened filibuster on a bill that would expand criminal background checks for gun sales and toughen penalties for illegal sales.

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican vice presidential nominee last year, told an anti-abortion group on Thursday that Republicans “need to work with people who consider themselves pro-choice.”

He also said: “We don’t want a country where abortion is simply outlawed. We want a country where it isn’t even considered.”

Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, pointed out that three dozen governorships will be decided in the 2014 election, and suggested the restrictions passed over the past few weeks would wake up voters.

“What we’re seeing here is an extreme position about women’s rights that was soundly rejected in the 2012 election at the federal level,” she told MSNBC. “These governors should be watching very, very carefully.”

Related:

Kansas lawmakers pass sweeping anti-abortion legislation

Abortion worker at trial: 'It was literally a beheading'

North Dakota governor signs toughest anti-abortion package in US

Arkansas lawmakers approve toughest abortion limits in nation