A perfect political storm has flooded state legislatures with anti-choice bills as Republicans have used what advocates call “nonsense” to justify an assortment of measures to restrict reproductive rights.
There have been 147 anti-choice bills introduced in state legislatures during the first month of 2016, according to an analysis by Rewire.
This year’s crush of anti-choice proposals is part of several years of coordinated efforts by Republicans and prominent anti-choice organizations to roll back reproductive rights on the state level.
Anti-choice legislation proliferates most in states with GOP-held legislatures, and the vast majority of bills are sponsored by Republican lawmakers.
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Of the 147 anti-choice bills introduced so far this year, 63 percent (92 bills) were sponsored by white Republican men, while 27 percent (40 bills) were sponsored by white Republican women. Democrats, including two Black men, six white men, and two white women, have sponsored ten anti-choice bills in 2016.
The number of anti-choice bills introduced and anti-choice laws enacted during the 2011 legislative sessions increased by an unprecedented amount after Republicans swept to power in legislatures across the country during the 2010 midterm elections.
In the years that have followed, the number of bills introduced and laws enacted has decreased during election years, while the number of bills introduced and laws enacted has increased the following year.
There were 92 restrictions on reproductive rights enacted in 2011, 43 enacted in 2012, 70 enacted in 2013, 26 enacted in 2014, and 57 enacted in 2015, according to yearly state policy reviews by the Guttmacher Institute.
However, the number of anti-choice bills introduced this year has come as a surprise to reproductive right advocates who track legislators’ attacks on abortion rights.
Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate for the Guttmacher Institute, told Rewire that she is seeing a lot of activity for January, which may indicate that this may be a very busy year for lawmakers introducing abortion restrictions.
“What we would normally see in an election year is a decrease in the number of restrictions considered at the state level,” Nash said. “We are not seeing that this year.”
Legislatures in 37 states convened in January, and another five state legislatures are set to kick off sessions at the beginning of February. Legislation to restrict reproductive rights was introduced in 24 states, and anti-choice legislation has been filed in Alabama ahead of legislative session that begins Tuesday.
Fetal Tissue Research Under Attack
Legislation targeting the use of fetal tissue has appeared in many state legislatures controlled by Republicans. These bills are motivated by allegations made by the anti-choice front group known as the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), which published deceptively edited and surreptitiously recorded videos throughout the summer of 2015. CMP officials have worked with GOP lawmakers to defund Planned Parenthood.
The organizations CMP has targeted have responded with legal action.
Planned Parenthood filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against CMP, calling the organization “a complex criminal enterprise conceived and executed by anti-abortion extremists.” The National Abortion Federation also filed a lawsuit against CMP, claiming that CMP illegaly recorded the group’s members.
After Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton called for an investigation into CMP’s allegations, a Houston grand jury declined to indict Planned Parenthood, but instead indicted David Daleiden, the head of CMP, and one of Daleiden’s associates who covertly recorded videos of the organization and its officials.
Despite CMP’s failure to produce any evidence of wrongdoing and state investigations coming up empty, lawmakers are still using the videos to push legislation to regulate fetal tissue and target abortion access more generally.
“We are seeing bills that ban fetal tissue research, bills that limit donations of fetal tissue or that prohibit the sale and buying of fetal tissue,” Nash said.
Republicans in Missouri went further than perhaps any other group of lawmakers to use the controversy to further an anti-choice agenda that included establishing the Committee on the Sanctity of Life. The 2016 legislative session has seen the Missouri GOP introduce seven bills related to fetal tissue.
Laura McQuade, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, told Rewire that GOP legislators are using the CMP attack videos as a justification for making restrictions on abortion care unrelated to fetal tissue donation.
“There are many different moving parts in these bills all designed to make access to safe legal abortion even more difficult than it is already,” McQuade said. “Lawmakers have gone into this through the fetal tissue conversation to make it seem more legitimate, but it is really the same kind of nonsense.”
The bills introduced in Missouri come even as Attorney General Chris Koster released a report detailing his office’s investigation into the tissue handling practices of Planned Parenthood’s Missouri surgical facility and concluded there was no evidence that the facility engaged in unlawful activity.
Bills to ban the purchasing of fetal tissue have been introduced in Kentucky and South Carolina, and a bill that requires clinics that provide abortion services to dispose of fetal remains by burial or cremation has been introduced in Virginia.
A bill banning the purchase of fetal tissue was introduced in Georgia, despite an investigation ordered by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) that found all of the clinics that provide abortion care had properly disposed of fetal tissue resulting from abortions.
The use of fetal tissue for research has also been a target of GOP lawmakers. Bills to ban the use of fetal tissue in scientific research have been introduced in Indiana and New Jersey. Minnesota Republicans have targeted public universities, where they claim illegal research on fetal tissue is being conducted. The Minnesota GOP has based this legislative move on an investigation published by a little-known news outlet backed by local Tea Party groups.
Lawmakers have not only used the CMP videos to justify proposals concerning fetal tissue, but to justify restrictions on reproductive rights more generally. “The videos are being used more broadly to support the need for abortion restrictions more generally,” Nash said.
States Seeing The Most Anti-Choice Measures
The number of anti-choice bills introduced in Republican-controlled state legislatures varies, but two states have introduced more than any others.
The past five years have seen the Republican-dominated Missouri state legislature propose more anti-choice bills than any other state. The state’s GOP is continuing that tradition in 2016.
There have been 22 bills to restrict reproductive rights introduced so far in the state. The proposals would restrict reproductive health care in a number of ways, including prohibiting physicians from using specific abortion procedures, restricting minors’ access to abortion care, and banning abortion due to the sex of the fetus or due to genetic abnormalities.
Republicans in Tennessee have increased their efforts to restrict reproductive rights. Lawmakers introduced 11 anti-choice bills during the 2015 legislative session. There have already been 21 bills introduced that would restrict reproductive rights in 2016.
“Tennessee is an interesting case since they recently rolled back [abortion] protections in their state constitution,” Nash said. “That opened the floodgates essential for bills to restrict abortion to be introduced and considered.”
Tennessee voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2014, which allows lawmakers to pass abortion regulations and restrict reproductive rights. Tennessee Republicans were successful in passing two new laws that restrict access to abortion.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed a bill into law that created a forced 48-hour waiting period before a person can terminate a pregnancy, and signed another bill that imposes new regulations requiring clinics that provide abortion care to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical treatment centers.
Tennessee lawmakers this year have introduced bills that would restrict reproductive rights in several ways, including banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, requiring a forced ultrasound for those seeking to terminate a pregnancy, and increasing reporting requirements for clinics that provide abortion care.
However, one mitigating factor for prospective Tennessee legislation is the requirement that each bill must have a companion bill. Nash said this makes it more difficult for bills to make it to the governor’s desk in Tennessee than it does in other states that lack the companion bill.
“The pattern that we’ve seen over the past few years with less attention paid to abortion restrictions in election years will be disrupted,” Nash said. “That’s changing the calculations for 2016. It’s a different year than what we’ve seen.”
The direction of each state legislature will become more apparent over the course of the next eight weeks. But Nash sees similarities between this year and another surprising year.
“After the 2010 elections, you had the sense that things were going to be tough on abortion restrictions, and you were still surprised at the amount of legislation that was moving,” Nash said.