TIME politics

Battles Over Abortion Flare in 2014

Pro-choice activists hold signs as marchers of the annual March for Life arrive in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 22, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Pro-choice activists hold signs as marchers of the annual March for Life arrive in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 22, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong—Getty Images

With campaign season on the horizon, reproductive health laws are defining the politics of state capitals and campaigns

As Republicans return to the campaign trail again after a disappointing 2012 election cycle, pro-life activists say they are emboldened and are looking to turn abortion into an animating issue for the Republican Party in 2014.

Their enthusiasm, coming as some in the party have cautioned a turn away from divisive social issues, is rising after a string of gains at the state-level last year. According to research from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health think tank, states have passed more than 200 restrictions on abortion since 2011, with 22 states enacting at least 70 new measures in 2013 alone. (Not all is progress for pro-lifers, who witnessed high-profile losses in Virginia and Albuquerque last year.)

Activists campaigning against abortion promise that 2014 will be another year of gains for the movement.

“It’s really been a groundswell of activity,” says Charmaine Yoest, head of Americans United for Life. “We’ve really seen the states become laboratories for democracy on these issues, and now we’re seeing a patchwork of legislation starting to emerge.”

In Tennessee, voters will decide this fall on whether to amend the state constitution to give lawmakers broader power to restrict abortion. If passed, the initiative would effectively overturn a 2000 state court ruling that found many abortion restrictions violated the strong privacy protections in the Tennessee Constitution, opening the floodgates for the GOP-controlled state government to push through a raft of new anti-abortion laws.

In Colorado, voters will consider a measure that would classify a fetus as a “person” in cases of violent acts against women, a new iteration of the “personhood” initiatives that have been introduced — and mostly failed — in at least 10 states.

And an initiative set to appear on the North Dakota’s ballot this year takes the idea one step further, giving a fetus full legal rights under the state’s constitution.

For the most part, anti-abortion efforts in 2014 will be dedicated to limiting access to the procedure, rather than advocate for outright bans. In the tussle over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature health care law, pro-life activists have found a new campaign in limiting health insurance coverage for abortion, wedding their efforts with wider conservative complaints. Last week , the House of Representatives voted to pass the No Taxpayer Funding For Abortions Act, which would permanently ban federal funding for abortion and deny tax credits to people who purchase health insurance that covers the procedure.

In Oregon, the only state with no major limits on abortion access, pro-life activists are working to get an initiative on the November ballot, which would prohibit the use of state taxpayer money for abortions.

According to a recent report from the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 states have already passed some type of restriction on insurance coverage for abortion.

Michigan has become the center of this particular fight since the state legislature, controlled by Republicans, voted in December to ban abortion coverage from both public and private health insurance plans. Under the new rules, women who wish to have the procedure covered by insurance will have to purchase a separate rider before any pregnancy — a provision opponents derisively call “rape insurance.”

The law — which was brought to the legislature via a rare citizens initiative, bypassing a likely veto by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder — makes Michigan the ninth state to bar private health insurers from covering abortion.

With several states already poised to add new limits to reproductive health care coverage, abortion rights advocates say it is likely that other Republican legislatures will attempt to follow Michigan’s lead this year.

Lawmakers in several states have started tailoring regulations to target specific abortion clinics. In Missouri this month, more than 100 state representatives signed on to a
new bill that would require abortion providers to be inspected at least four times annually—an exhaustive demand, critics say, for the state’s sole abortion clinic.

Pro-life groups say the increased scrutiny is necessary to “improve accountability” and ensure that women are safe at the clinic.

“They are trying to drive every single clinic out of business so that women just have no recourse,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

With midterm elections on the horizon, anti-abortion activists are urging the Republican Party to embrace its pro-life position, and more aggressively rebuff Democratic efforts to cast GOP candidates as extreme and anti-women.

At the Republican National Committee’s recent annual winter meeting, delegates passed a resolution demanding that the party “fight back against Democratic deceptive ‘war on women’ rhetoric.” The resolution urged Republican candidates to seize “advantage of widely supported pro-life positions listed above to attract traditional and new values voters.”

Susan B. Anthony List, a national pro-life organization, said that it plans to use support for a ban on abortion after 20-weeks to target vulnerable Democrats in North Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska, three of the toughest states for Democrats who are seeking to maintain their hold on the Senate this fall.

“We want our candidates to be out there, getting in front of these issues,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

But Republicans aren’t the only ones who are seizing reproductive issues as a key to victory in state-wide races in 2014.

In conservative Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback faces a surprisingly competitive race against pro-choice Democrat Paul Davis, the state’s little-known senate minority leader, pro-choice advocates are trying to turn Brownback’s anti-abortion positions into liability as he campaigns for reelection this fall. While Brownback remains the heavy favorite in deep-red Kansas, where lawmakers voted last year to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and have passed a law defining life as beginning at conception, the governor has seen his approval ratings sink well below 50 percent, and a recent poll from SurveyUSA shows Brownback trailing Davis in a 2014.

Campaigning in a different deep red state, Democrats have bet on another candidate who has made who stand against restrictions to abortion central to her political identity. Wendy Davis, the state senator who is running for governor in Texas, became best known for her filibuster last to halt a restrictive state law. Even if Davis steers clear of reproductive issues on the campaign trail, her outspokenness on abortion has made the lawmaker particularly popular with the party’s donors whose assistance she’ll need to compete in her expensive race.

“We understand that we are not going to undo all these trends in one cycle,” said NARAL’s Hogue. “But there is change coming—there are signs that the American public is starting to stand up.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser