A National Pro-Life Strategy, Built in the States

by | October 15, 2014

By Alana Semuels and Maria L. La Ganga

The numbers have changed little over the decades: A majority of Americans support abortion.

But across the country, the anti-abortion movement has recorded major success in the last four years _ part of a well-funded national strategy to legislate abortion out of existence state by state. Legislatures, many stocked with new Republican majorities, have passed laws that, if upheld, would drastically reduce access to abortion for millions of women.

Since 2011, 230 abortion restrictions have become law _ more than in the entire previous decade, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.

Eight states have enacted laws requiring women to get ultrasounds before receiving abortions. Five prohibit insurance companies from covering abortion for government employees. Nine have passed laws restricting state money from going to any group that provides abortion services.

Earlier this month, nearly two-thirds of the abortion clinics in Texas were forced to close their doors when the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state could enforce a recent law requiring them to be built to the same stringent standards as hospitals. (On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked part of the law.)

Charmaine Yoest, president of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, calls it a "tidal wave of legislation," spurred by the number of anti-abortion legislators elected at the state level in 2010.

"States are called laboratories of democracy," Yoest said. "There wasn't much opportunity on the federal level, so pro-life Americans said, 'We are going to make a statement with the government that's nearest and closest to us.' "

In Louisiana, that effort is on full display.

A conservative juggernaut has sprung to life here along the Gulf of Mexico, where Bayou State politics work hand-in-hand with Christian churches, where some conservative pastors condemn abortion as a sin and tell parishioners that voting for a Democrat is, too.

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has been so consistently against abortion rights that the state is celebrated as the most "pro-life" in the country by Americans United for Life. The anti-abortion lobby's annual scorecards are closely watched by legislators here.

"Abortion until recently was not a front-burner issue in Louisiana," said JP Morrell, a Democratic state senator. "Religious groups have made it a front-burner issue. The grassroots movement here is as organized and effective as anything you've ever seen."

The law that is having the most effect on access to abortion in Louisiana requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The legislation was sponsored by a Democratic state legislator, evidence of the complicated politics of abortion here. Ten other states have passed similar measures, although some have been blocked by courts.

Abortion foes say the admitting privileges law would protect women's health. Abortion providers say it would shut down clinics and undermine Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Louisiana's five abortion clinics have sued to overturn the law. From Sept. 1 forward, any physician without privileges would have had to stop performing abortions, resulting in the closure of some, if not all, of the clinics.

Although a federal judge granted a temporary reprieve from the law, as of last week it was unclear whether the doctors who do not yet have privileges will be able to continue practicing until the case is resolved.

"Based on my experience, many hospitals in Louisiana are reluctant to provide admitting privileges to physicians who perform abortions because of personal objections to abortion held by members of their medical staff," Sylvia Cochran, administrator of clinics in New Orleans and Baton Rouge that provide abortions, said in a court declaration. Many hospitals, she added, also worry about protesters.

Six physicians perform abortions in Louisiana's clinics. Hospitals so far have not granted four of them admitting privileges. Of the two physicians who have such privileges, Cochran fears that one could lose them. The other said in court documents that, if he became the sole legal abortion provider in the state, he would stop performing the procedure because he would fear for his safety.

Louisiana has more than 30 organizations that identify themselves as "crisis pregnancy centers." These facilities provide referrals for free medical care, counsel women against having abortions and are often affiliated with national anti-abortion groups. Texas has more than 100. Such centers in Louisiana are often right next to abortion providers. They are listed on the state Department of Health & Hospitals website as an alternative for pregnant women.

One bright summer day, Bill Shanks stood outside an abortion clinic that Cochran oversees _ the Women's Healthcare Center in New Orleans. He wore a cheery smile as fellow protesters waved giant posters of dismembered fetuses.

"This is like a victory celebration," said Shanks, who was picketing as a member of the far-right group Operation Save America. "Last time we came here, there were 10 free-standing abortion clinics. One by one, they've crumbled."

Support for abortion rights remains strong across most of the country, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Last year, as the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade approached, 63 percent said they would not like to see the court overturn the decision. Only 29 percent said they wanted it overturned. Over the years, the numbers have remained fairly steady.

What has changed, according to the poll, is a divide _ both geographic and political _ that abortion foes have mined with increasing success. In New England, 75 percent of the people Pew polled said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up 5 percent from two decades ago. But in the eight-state South Central region, which includes Louisiana and Texas, the survey showed that only 40 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, down 5 percent over the same period.

For legislators in the South in particular, the issue of abortion carries serious political consequences.

At a July 24 town hall meeting in Opelousas, La., organized by opponents of abortion, the audience sat quietly picking through free jambalaya. Benjamin Clapper, executive director of the Louisiana Right to Life Federation, delivered an update on anti-abortion bills passed by the state's legislators in the recent session.

Three local elected officials, two Democrats and a Republican, stood up to accept cheers for having supported the measures. Dozens watched a presentation that included pouring orange foam pellets into a glass jar to show how many abortions are performed in Louisiana each year _ more than 12,000 in 2011, the most recent statistics available.

But most of the meeting dealt with the November election. Clapper focused his disdain on U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu. The Louisiana Democrat is facing a tough battle, and Clapper, 29, hit his key points:

Landrieu has not voted for any measure that would restrict access to abortion since she was last re-elected in 2008, he said. Her four opponents either supported every abortion bill over the same period, or, if they did not serve in public office, expressed a commitment to support anti-abortion legislation.

He then passed out a card scoring the candidates on their abortion stances. "If you know legislators who didn't vote pro-life, I encourage you to contact them and encourage them to stand stronger for life," Clapper told the crowd.

Landrieu has said she believes life begins at conception but that government does not belong in church, the bedroom or the doctor's office. A recent poll indicated she probably is headed for a December runoff.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle are wary of the annual scorecards put out by the anti-abortion lobby, especially one from the Louisiana Family Forum, a group run by anti-abortion activist Gene Mills and founded by Tony Perkins, now head of the Family Research Council.

On Mills' scorecards, both Democrats and Republicans scored high marks because of their anti-abortion stance, something that would be unlikely in most other states. Bills that undermine abortion access in Louisiana get bipartisan support, he said, "because people are afraid of that legislative scorecard."

Mills distributes the scorecards to a network of churches, and encourages pastors to speak about what elected officials are doing. Churches are not supposed to engage in partisan political activity if they want to retain their tax-exempt status, but Mills and a national litigation group called the Alliance Defending Freedom are challenging that.

"We want to let (pastors) know that it is not the government's right to limit your free speech even when you stand on the pulpit," said Mills, who is a pastor himself.

Butch Gautreaux, a Democrat who served in the Louisiana state Senate from 2000 until 2012, sees a problem in such close ties.

"Preachers are preaching whatever song is coming from the Family Forum," Gautreaux said. "I had a Catholic priest say that to vote for a Democrat is a sin _ he said that in church. Distortion plays a huge part in what they do. It's not right, it's sinful, it's shameful.

"A lot of times, for a moderate legislator like I was, it was easier just not to have to fight on that issue. I might vote not my conscience," he said, but he might vote in favor of abortion restrictions if it meant he didn't have to go home and explain his actions over and over again.

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