Access to Abortion Services Blocked or Limited by State Laws

Laws restricting abortions are increasing rapidly, causing clinics in some states to close.

A federal judge has indefinitely extended his injunction of a new Mississippi law that requires abortion clinic physicians to be board-certified OB-GYNs and to have patient-admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The law was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, and would have closed the state’s only abortion clinic, but U.S. District Court Judge Daniel P. Jordan III blocked it while he considered its constitutionality.

The controversial Mississippi law is just one of the latest measures in an ongoing effort by abortion opponents to limit abortion access in individual states. That effort is gaining steam; in 2011, 92 laws restricting abortion were passed among the states, blowing away the previous record of 34 laws in 2005. 39 new laws have been passed so far in 2012.

“The tenor of the entire debate has changed,” said Jordan Goldberg, State Advocacy Counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “The hostility has ratcheted up since the 2010 elections. Older anti-abortion laws were about making abortions more burdensome, but the newest laws are all about shutting the clinics down entirely.”

Though Mississippi’s lone abortion clinic remains open for now, the judge could ultimately let the new law stand, and an appeal is all but guaranteed if it is struck down. The clinic has applied for patient-admitting privileges at seven local hospitals, but if the law goes into effect before they secure those privileges, Mississippi would become the first state with no access to abortion services.


Controversial Strategies

Mississippi’s abortion battle made national headlines last year as well, when more than 55% of voters rejected the “personhood amendment”, a ballot initiative that would define life as beginning at conception. Critics of the proposed initiative warned that its broad language could criminalize in-vitro fertilization, some types of birth control and even miscarriages.

Some abortion opponents view personhood laws as ways to instigate legal battles that may bring the abortion debate back before the U.S. Supreme Court, where the landmark Roe v. Wade decision would be vulnerable. Although the personhood effort failed in staunchly conservative Mississippi and in two earlier attempts in Colorado, anti-abortion organizations like Personhood USA continue to promote ballot initiatives and legislation in other states. So far, none has been successful.

Jordan Goldberg

“The ‘personhood’ effort has been a singularly unavailing strategy that has been rejected even by most anti-abortion groups,” said Goldberg. “People are just not interested in imposing this view upon others.”

Controversial anti-abortion bills in other states have also sparked serious blowback. Virginia lawmakers were recently pressured to modify a bill that would have made invasive transvaginal ultrasounds mandatory for women seeking abortions. The mandatory ultrasound law ultimately passed once it was rewritten to allow noninvasive abdominal ultrasounds.

In Michigan, Rep. Lisa Brown made headlines for being formally silenced by the Michigan Speaker of the House for using the word “vagina” in the previous day’s debate over a sweeping abortion bill that could also shutter all abortion clinics in the state. The bill would criminalize abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy and lacks exceptions for rape, fetal anomaly or the health of the mother, unless her life is at risk. It would also require all abortion clinics to maintain surgery rooms, provide doctor supervision for medication abortions and question women about whether they’ve been coerced to terminate the pregnancy. The bill passed the House and awaits action in the Michigan Senate.


Restrictions Across the Nation

While Roe v. Wade guarantees women the right to abortion services throughout the U.S., the states exercise their ability to modify abortion laws in several ways.

Eight states require an ultrasound for each abortion, and abortion providers in Texas are obligated to display and describe the ultrasound image even if the mother declines. 35 states require require women to receive counseling before an abortion, and 26 of those states mandate a waiting period before the procedure can be performed. Ten of those states require that the counseling be provided in person prior to the start of the waiting period, requiring two separate trips to the clinic.

Minors seeking abortions must involve one or more of their parents in 37 states; 18 of those states require the consent of at least one parent, and Kansas, Mississippi and North Dakota require the consent of both parents. The remaining states require the notification of one or more parents.

Other state laws restrict insurance coverage for abortion services and prohibit “partial-birth” abortions.

While these regulations place obstacles in the paths of women who would seek abortions, the most daunting challenge to many women is the distance to the nearest clinic.

“87 to 88 percent of counties in the U.S. do not have an abortion provider,” said Goldberg. “In South Dakota, North Dakota and Mississippi, there is only one provider per state. In many cases women must travel a significant distance that can greatly add to their expense and effort, so even where there aren’t a ton of legal restrictions, it can be a real challenge.”

The Guttmacher Institute publishes a state-by-state guide of abortion laws and trends. If you need a civil rights attorney, find one in your area on

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