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Around The Country, Statehouses Expect Another Busy Year For Abortion Legislation


Abortion is still legal in all 50 states under the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision from 1973. With two of President Trump's conservative nominees now on the court, activists believe that could change, and states could soon have a lot more power to restrict abortion. As a result, many state lawmakers are taking a closer look at their abortion laws as they return to their state capitals this year. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, advocates on both sides of the issue are predicting another busy legislative session.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: There is a lot at stake for the abortion issue this year - a presidential election, a big Supreme Court case coming up and plenty of action expected in state legislatures.

RACHEL SUSSMAN: Abortion is hanging on by a thread, and 2020 is going to be a crucial year.

MCCAMMON: That's Rachel Sussman with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. She says the stakes have gotten much higher since Justice Anthony Kennedy retired in 2018. He was often the swing vote in abortion cases. When President Trump replaced him with Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Sussman says the ground shifted.

SUSSMAN: We saw a dramatic response at the state level in response to the Trump administration, to the Kavanaugh appointment. And a real active group of states pushed to ban abortion across the country.

MCCAMMON: It was the busiest year for abortion legislation that Sue Liebel remembers in more than a dozen years of working on the issue. She's state policy director with the anti-abortion rights group the Susan B. Anthony List.

SUE LIEBEL: Both sides are kind of throwing down, if you will.

MCCAMMON: A report from the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, describes an unprecedented wave of new abortion bans last year, with 17 states passing new restrictions. Liebel points to bills like one passed in Alabama last year, which makes performing most abortions at any stage a felony, or Georgia, one of several states to ban the procedure as soon as cardiac activity is detectable. Liebel expects more of the same in 2020.

LIEBEL: I fully expect this year to be just as busy, if not more, because of the momentum that's just rolling across the country.

MCCAMMON: Liebel wants more abortion restrictions to pass this year, such as laws banning specific methods of abortion or prohibiting the procedure based on the race, sex or disability of the fetus. Meanwhile, several states are pushing in the opposite direction. Kristin Ford with NARAL Pro-Choice America says many states have abortion restrictions on the books that are no longer enforced.

KRISTIN FORD: But because of what hangs in the balance at the federal level with the Supreme Court, I think states that are controlled by pro-choice legislatures are going to be thinking really carefully about, what can we do to proactively safeguard, lock in the protections of Roe v. Wade that we've taken for granted for decades?

MCCAMMON: According to the Guttmacher Institute, nine states passed laws last year strengthening abortion rights. Nevada removed some of its restrictions. New York and Illinois wrote many of the protections of Roe into their state law. Katie Glenn, an attorney with Americans United for Life, says lawmakers are watching the Supreme Court while thinking ahead.

KATIE GLENN: And so legislators really have an eye towards, what will the law look like on the day after Roe in my state? And what do I want it to look like? What do my voters want it to look like? And that's kind of where their focus has turned.

MCCAMMON: Both sides know that if Roe falls, state lawmakers will have tremendous new power to regulate abortion. And both sides are working to begin shaping that future now.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.