Health Care

Abortion law changes ahead as legislatures convene

Red and blue states will likely move in opposite directions to further restrict or protect abortion access.
The Texas State Capitol Building in Austin / Photo: Reid Wilson, Pluribus News

Lawmakers are preparing a raft of abortion-related measures as state legislatures are set to meet in regular session for the first time since the Supreme Court paved the way for states to ban the procedure.

Laws related to reproductive rights are in flux throughout the country nearly six months since the Dobbs ruling determined that the Constitution does not guarantee the right to abortion. Legal challenges are pending in 19 states that have enacted bans, as lawmakers on both sides of the issue retool their approaches after an election cycle in which voters rejected abortion restrictions on the ballot in six states.

With a patchwork of laws already resulting from the decision, red and blue states will likely move in opposite directions to further restrict or protect abortion access.

“States are still trying to figure it out,” said Sue Swayze Liebel, director of state affairs and Midwest regional director for Susan B. Anthony List, which opposes abortion. “Now there are 50 ways to try to do this, and it’s every state for itself.”

“It’s like at every important event when it comes to abortion, it’s the stepping stone for the next thing to happen,” said Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate for state issues at the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that advocates for abortion rights. “It just doesn’t stop.”

Sixteen states had near-total abortion bans in place at some point in 2022, and 12 of those were still in effect as of December. Most of those were so-called trigger bans, passed by state legislatures in the years leading up to the Dobbs decision, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Incoming Idaho Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder (R) told Pluribus News he expects conservative lawmakers to push to eliminate exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s life from the state’s ban, which is already among the most restrictive in the country. “I think it’ll have some traction, whether it passes or not I can’t say at this point,” he said.

Winder said he would support providing more guidance to medical providers. “I’m historically known as a pro-life person,” he said. “I’ll continue that point of view. I also think that we need to clarify, if necessary, for the medical community, if we can get to some agreement on what is really a medical treatment and what’s an emergency, so that there isn’t any confusion there and we’re protecting the life of the mother — I think that’s important.”

Advocates on both sides of the issue told Pluribus News they expect more restrictions to pass in a number of states where abortion opponents made inroads in the 2022 elections.

At the top of that list is South Carolina, where a bill that would have prohibited most abortions in the state passed the House in a fall special session but failed in the Senate. Republican lawmakers have said a renewed push to pass an abortion ban will be among their top priorities in January, when they will control a supermajority in the House.

Increased abortion restrictions could also be on the table in Florida, Nebraska and North Carolina, where abortion opponents gained ground in the 2022 elections.

In Florida, Republicans have said they want to increase restrictions beyond the state’s 15-week ban after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was re-elected by nearly 20 points and Republicans secured supermajorities in the House and Senate. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo has said she would support a 12-week ban with exceptions for rape and incest, and DeSantis has indicated he is “willing to sign” more restrictive abortion legislation.

Nebraska abortion rights advocates no longer have the votes in the legislature to block the strict bans that narrowly failed last year. But lawmakers who backed previous attempts to tighten restrictions have not laid out their plans for the next session.

North Carolina Republicans have enough votes in the Senate to override a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and will be within one vote of a supermajority in the House. Legislative leaders in both chambers have said they favor curtailing the state’s 20-week ban.

Nash and Liebel both said they will be watching Virginia for an early indicator of the momentum behind the push for tighter restrictions in the coming year.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), a potential contender for the 2024 presidential nomination, allocated money in his proposed budget to enforce a 15-week ban he favors. Democrats, who hold a one-seat majority in the Senate, have vowed to block it. The entire legislature is up for re-election in 2023.

Abortion opponents are also focused on tightening control of medication used to induce abortions and limiting support to patients from their employers or Medicaid in states that have already enacted bans.

Nash said she is watching bills pre-filed in Texas that would make it illegal for a government entity to provide money that could be used to travel out of state for an abortion and to eliminate state tax breaks to businesses that help pay for employees’ costs to travel for out-of-state abortions.

Republicans in Missouri have targeted medicated abortion in a number of pre-filed bills, including one that would make it a class B felony to import, export, distribute or deliver abortion-inducing drugs.

Liebel, of Susan B. Anthony List, said abortion opponents will prioritize bills requiring in-person consultation before doctors prescribe medication that can be used in an abortion.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of Dec. 12, 18 states adopted a total of 77 provisions through the legislative process or executive orders that focused on abortion funding, clinic access and safety, and “shield laws” to protect providers from out-of-state lawsuits for providing abortions. Legislative leaders from several of those states told Pluribus News in recent weeks that reproductive rights will remain a priority in the next session.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on that,” Washington State Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said in an interview, adding that the highest priority bills include measures to protect providers who treat out-of-state patients and shore up data privacy related to abortion services.

Colorado lawmakers are considering similar measures. The state was among the first to codify abortion rights in its constitution in anticipation of the Dobbs ruling.

“We do want to think about what additionally we need to do,” Senate President Steve Fenberg (D) said in an interview.

Austin Jenkins and Sophie Quinton contributed to this report