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August 3, 2013

GOP in key states tries to slow anti-abortion push

MILWAUKEE — Abortion is still legal but getting one in many states will be difficult if laws passed this year are upheld by the courts. In a march through conservative legislatures, anti-abortion Republicans passed a wave of new restrictions that would sharply limit when a woman could terminate a pregnancy and where she could go to do so.

The push brought the anti-abortion movement closer to a key milestone, in which the procedure would become largely inaccessible in the three-fifths of the country controlled by Republicans even if still technically legal under Roe vs. Wade.  

But rather than continuing to roll across the GOP heartland in synch with the pro-life movement’s plan, the effort may now be hitting a wall. The obstacle comes not from opposing Democrats but from GOP leaders who believe pressing further is a mistake for a party trying to soften its harder edges after election losses last year.

The resisting Republicans include governors and top legislators in more than a half-dozen states, including some of the largest and most politically competitive in the party’s 30-state coalition. They are digging in to stop the barrage of abortion proposals, hoping to better cultivate voters not enamored with the GOP’s social agenda.

“It’s a huge mistake if your ear is not in tune where people are,” said Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz in Wisconsin, who is trying to fend off more abortion legislation in the state’s GOP-controlled legislature, even though he says he personally supports it.  “And we were pushing people too fast. All we’re going to do is panic people and this is going to blow up if we don’t begin to moderate on some of this stuff.”

The Ohio Senate president, Republican Tom Neihaus, blocked a bill in November that would have banned abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

“I just didn’t think it was appropriate,” said Niehaus, a supporter of earlier anti-abortion measures.  “It’s a distraction from our primary focus of getting the economy back on track.”

But anti-abortion leaders say they are determined to push on into more Republican strongholds, taking advantage of the party’s majority status.

“It is definitely the case that the future for us lies beyond what is considered your traditional pro-life states,” said Dan McConchie, vice president of Americans United for Life, which circulates model legislation to state lawmakers.

The dissension, strongest in the Midwest and southern border states, is flaring as the GOP prepares for competitive races in the contested regions next year.  The anti-abortion movement is poised to press for constitutional amendments giving legal rights to fetuses, bans on abortions based on gender, and an end to abortion exceptions for victims of rape and incest.

Anti-abortion Republicans have gotten more than 170 new abortion laws passed in 30 states since the party won control of a majority of statehouses in 2010. This year’s push was highlighted by some of the strongest restrictions yet passed in North Dakota, Arkansas and Texas.

The key measures banned abortions after approximately six weeks, 12 weeks or 20 weeks, depending on the state; required women to see the fetus on an ultrasound; required doctors to have hospital admitting privileges; and required clinics to have full hospital-type facilities. More than a dozen GOP states in the South and West adopted all or most of the package.

If the new laws are upheld by the courts, many providers would close. Only six of the 42 abortion clinics in Texas are expected for remain open, serving the nation’s second largest population. Already, only one clinic remains open in Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

In the midst of the push, Republican legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and several other swing states enacted restrictions, but not the tougher ones. Republican majorities in Florida did not add new restrictions and leaders don’t expect to. In Virginia, a key anti-abortion measure didn’t pass.  Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina is balking at more action.

GOP officials there object to the idea of legislating abortion repeatedly and to proposals they consider extreme.

“We just passed the biggest abortion bill in Wisconsin in 15 years,” said Wisconsin state Sen. Glenn Grothman, among the chamber’s leading anti-abortion crusaders. “But to ask our members to do that again, they might not have the stomach for that.”

In these states, GOP leaders say they are worried about alienating women and young people, who disproportionately favor abortion rights. These groups voted in lesser numbers than usual for GOP candidates last year.  Democratic President Barack Obama won the women’s vote by 11 percentage points.

Nationally, most voters approve of restrictions on abortion but 54 percent think it should be legal in most or all cases, according to a poll conducted in July by the Pew Center for People and the Press. The support for abortion rights was 10 percentage points higher in the Great Lakes and South Atlantic regions than in the South.

In Michigan, “There’s just not a whole lot of legislative things left do” on abortion, said GOP Senate President Randy Richardville. “We lean conservative, but we’re not crazies.”

Michigan’s Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger blocked one tough abortion bill this year and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed another last year, which opponents are now trying to circumvent with a ballot initiative.

But abortion rights supporters say that even if the GOP’s anti-abortion push loses momentum, the measures already passed in Republican states will have a major impact on women seeking abortions.

“Even if this wave of restrictions stops, it’s not like access will be restored,” said Elizabeth Nash, the state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

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Emery Dalesio in Raleigh, N.C.; David Eggert in Lansing, Mich.; and Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed.

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