Demystified: What Is Up With Abortion This Summer?

Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

You can barely check your Twitter feed lately without noticing a new state legislature abortion controversy. Texas? #Tampongate. Ohio? Red and pink for days. North Carolina? Wait, what about motorcycle vaginas?

It's been a summer of dramatic showdowns — and we wanted to know why. What's the story behind the story of these all-night filibusters and clinic closures? How did reproductive rights in so many states reach this, well, state? We spoke to experts and advocates on both sides of the debate to get some answers:

1. Is it just our imagination, or is there more anti-abortion legislation in 2013?

Advocates on both sides cite numbers from the Guttmacher Institute, a DC-based think tank that tracks the frequency of abortion legislation by state. Their most recent numbers suggest that 2013 has indeed seen a whopping amount of legislation around reproductive health and rights: In the first six months of this year, states enacted 106 related provisions — as many as were enacted in all of 2012.

"One way to think about this is that between 2008 and 2010, nearly 70 abortion-specific restrictions were enacted. From 2011 to now, 180 abortion restrictions have been enacted," State Issues Manager for the Guttmacher Institute Elizabeth Nash said. "So we are seeing just a huge increase in volume, and the restrictions themselves are becoming more burdensome. 2013 is part of this wave of restrictions that’s moving across the country."

2. So why the increase?

Three years ago, Republicans took control of a record number of state legislatures. Many of them were riding a reproductive rights backlash to the Affordable Care Act. What we're seeing now is essentially those conservative legislators fulfilling their campaign promises.

That said, if you look at 2011's even higher number of abortion-related laws (162), 2013 is clearly part of a larger trend.

Michael New, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, articulates one pervasive pro-life explanation for the numbers: 

"Public opinion in these states — especially as reflected by election — leans pro-life. But when you look at the world in Washington, DC and New York, it’s a lot different than the heartland. Mainstream media tries to make the case that legislation is unpopular."

The states in question this summer — Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia — do lean to the right. One could expect legislators are acting in accordance with what they perceive their constituents have voted them into office to do. 

Assistant Professor Michael McVicar studies right-wing media at Florida State University, and points out that the legislation is about more than just abortion. "This most recent trend seems to have coincided with the rise of the Tea Party, and resistance to Obamacare. Abortion becomes a proxy battleground for bigger fights."

3. Have Republicans changed their strategy?

As we now know, it turns out many restrictions are increasingly wrapped into larger bills – i.e., North Carolina and motorcycle safety, or Ohio's annual state budget.

Slate's Emily Bazelon took a look at the types of legislation up for debate this summer and broke them down into four main categories: First trimester bans on abortion, 18 to 20 week bans on abortion, bans on medication-induced abortion, and Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers, otherwise known as TRAP laws. 

"This isn’t about abortion bans only, this is about complicated state bills with a whole lot of things wrapped up in them. It's access to clinics, to family planning, and birth control for low income women who use them as their primary provider," Tara Culp-Ressler of ThinkProgress told Bustle. "It's become all about the bans, all about later abortion, how far along in the pregnancy you are, and 'what a barbaric thing to do to a fetus.'"

4. Anti-abortion legislation is also about dissing Obamacare.

McVicar says he's noticed a shift in right wing media's handling of abortion. Gruesome images like those from the high-profile trial of abortion provider Kermit Gosnell are still used, but increasingly, he says the pro-life argument is being framed as anti-Obamacare, and saving taxpayer money.

"It seems like in some ways these folks are shifting from culture war-esque lines about religion and personhood of the fetus, and instead putting the burden back on medicine, saying this is about protecting the mother and people who perform it," McVicar said. "It suggests that folks associated with this legislation are learning that the culture war rhetoric doesn’t work as well."

5. What's surprising here?

In a word: #Tampongate.

Previous years' reproductive rights restrictions have seen backlash, but, both sides agree, the flavor of this summer's all-night filibustering and social media showdowns makes the peaceable hearings in the Idaho state legislature seem like a snooze. 

"We’ve seen outrcy in Virginia [in 2012] over transvaginal ultrasounds, and you saw those little bits last year in the pre-election 'war on women," Culp-Ressler said. 

"But [before now] we haven’t really seen thousands of protestors showing up at the state capitols day after day. So it was that initial grassrooots spark that inerested the mainstream media, and it was driven by the Internet, mainly, when Wendy Davis was filibustering. People were following along on Twitter, watching the live stream and the hashtags. It was crazy. Over 100,000 people were watching this Texas Senate debate."

6. What happens next?

State legislatures are the battleground for most abortion rights issues, because, at its most basic, they wouldn't have a shot in federal chambers. Any bills proposed in the U.S. House (Republican as it may be) would be vetoed by President Obama, if not killed sooner. 

Plus, well, Roe v. Wade.

Many of the restrictions passed this year will probably face a judicial challenge. Legislation is often modeled off templates created by pro-life groups, who believe their models can withstand the courts. 

Nash says similar laws may be brewing in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas...pretty much the whole South

7. How are these new restrictions going to affect women?

Obviously, they will limit a woman's right to choose, but how will that affect society at large? Nash and her Guttmacher Institute colleagues aren't exactly sure. 

"Something that I can’t get a handle on, is what do [these laws] mean in a place like Kansas, where a number of restrictions have been adopted in short order, and where most of those restrictions have gone into effect," Nash admits. 

"What are women doing? Are women leaving the state? Are women having children they weren't intending to have? What is happening there? Are we seeing higher birth rates? Does it even have an effect on contraceptive use?" Nash wonders. "Do women have to travel further to access services, or are these regulations just too much for them to deal with?"

If the current trend continues, we're about to be confronted with these questions on a much larger scale. 

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