Health Care

Abortion rights debates kick off in legislatures across the country

Developments this week in Maine and Montana exemplify red and blue states’ divergent paths on the issue.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) unveiled a proposal to allow abortions late in pregnancies, as Montana Republicans sought to advance a measure that would strip abortion protections from the state constitution.

The two developments, playing out this week on opposite sides of the country, provide a glimpse of the divergent paths red- and blue-state lawmakers are taking as they meet for the first time since the Supreme Court determined last summer that it was up to the states to regulate abortion access.

With most states just days into their 2023 legislative session, lawmakers have already proposed a flurry of bills targeting abortion access.

Abortion rights opponents say they see opportunities in states where Republicans won legislative supermajorities and governor and attorney general races to advance legislation that would increase gestational limits on abortion, tighten controls around medication that can induce abortions, and increase state funding for centers that provide support for pregnant people and parents of newborns.

Democrats promoted their early actions to protect abortion rights as a promise fulfilled to the voters who helped them notch substantial wins in state legislatures in the November elections.

“Fundamentally, these decisions are decisions that should be made by a woman and her medical provider,” Mills said at a press conference Tuesday announcing a bill that would allow abortions after 24 weeks with a doctor’s approval and introduce new protections for medical providers. “And fundamentally, no one in Maine should have to leave our state or leave the support of family and friends and potentially have to spend thousands just to access the care they need.”

Democrats control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in Maine. The legislation was unveiled in advance of the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling — which guaranteed federal protection for abortion rights — on Jan. 22.

Mills’s proposal mirrored others in Democrat-controlled states, where lawmakers have responded to last year’s Dobbs ruling with legislation to codify abortion in state constitutions, protect providers who treat out-of-state patients, and shore up data privacy related to abortion services.

“Progressive states are continuing to find ways to expand access to care through policies and programs, and there is so much to do, particularly around funding of abortion,” said Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate for state issues at the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that advocates for abortion rights.

Katie Glenn, state policy director for SBA Pro-Life America, which advocates against abortion rights, said the Maine proposal was an example of “how extreme pro-abortion politicians are willing to go.”

She said there is limited public support for late-term abortions — a 2022 Pew Research Center Survey found that 56% of people who supported abortion rights said the timing of an abortion should be a factor in its legality — and noted that only a handful of states allow abortions after 24 weeks. “This is something that does not have popular support,” Glenn said.

So far, about a quarter of the states and Washington, D.C., are considering policies that support access to abortion, said Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute, while conservative states are seeking to make it harder to access abortion, including in states that have banned abortion. “More now than ever, abortion access is coming down to where you live and the resources you have,” Nash said.

Washington State Democrats introduced legislation last week that would ensure that health providers can’t be disciplined or have their license denied for “unprofessional conduct” for providing reproductive health services or gender affirming care in accordance with Washington State law, regardless of where the patient resides. Other proposals would eliminate cost-sharing for patients seeking abortion care and protect employers who provide reproductive health care services permitted under Washington law.

“Washington will remain a place where access to essential healthcare will be vigorously protected, and that includes protecting the providers who ensure patients can get care,” Washington Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D) said in a press release announcing the package

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (D) announced a legislative package Tuesday that includes proposals to “provide more access to care and provide legal protections for those who provide, assist and seek services.”

Bills to restrict or ban abortion have been introduced in 23 states, Nash said. States such as Nebraska and Iowa may seek to join the other 12 states with abortion bans, she said, while states including Texas and Missouri are seeking to impose additional restrictions on top of their bans to deter people from accessing pills online or seeking care out of state.

In Kansas, where voters overwhelmingly rejected an August ballot measure that would have amended the state constitution to say there is no fundamental right to an abortion, Republicans in control of the legislature announced that new abortion restrictions will be a priority in the upcoming session. Abortions in the state are illegal after 22 weeks of gestation, except in cases where the mother’s health is in jeopardy.

“The most radical view of abortion right now is actually the Democratic Party view, that unregulated abortion up to and, in some cases you see around the country, after birth,” Republican Senate President Ty Masterson said at a Jan. 10 press conference.

In Montana, Republican lawmakers are seeking to reverse a 1999 state Supreme Court decision that found the state constitution’s right to privacy ensures access to abortions.

“An abortion is not an individual act,” Regier said at a Tuesday hearing on a bill he sponsored that would redefine the right to privacy to clarify it does not include the right to an abortion. “It involves different DNA. It involves another set of fingerprints. It involves another individual. A right to privacy should not apply to an abortion any more than a right to privacy applying to child abuse or abusing a spouse. Those acts include another person and are not acts of individual privacy.”

Opponents to Regier’s bill said it doesn’t fall to the Legislature to decide how the state constitution should be interpreted and that the document itself gives that job to the judiciary.

“This language in the bill is likely unconstitutional. It’s not for the Legislature to say what is or not meant by the Constitution. That is the role of the judicial branch in our state government,” Martha Fuller, the head of Planned Parenthood of Montana, told the Montana State News Bureau. “Ultimately, if this bill were to become law, that is likely where a decision would be made. Litigating bills like these is a waste of both time and the taxpayer money.”

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) and Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) have asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider the 1999 decision.