Anti-abortion legislation that copies a controversial bill recently passed into law in Georgia is being considered by lawmakers in nine other states across the country, according to pro-choice campaigners monitoring the spread of such laws in the US.
Bills have so far passed one chamber in Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee. Others have been introduced to statehouses in Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Texas and West Virginia without yet facing votes.
Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, signed legislation earlier this month to ban abortion once cardiac activity can be detected in a fetus – which can be as early as six weeks, before many women even realize they are pregnant. The law sparked outrage among women’s rights groups across the US.
All these laws and bills are patterned on “model legislation” promoted by the hardline anti-abortion group Faith2Action led by the high-profile conservative campaigner Janet Porter.
Porter has been pushing the idea of what pro-choice campaigners call “six-week bills” for almost a decade, but until recently she has had limited success.
According to abortion rights supporters and opponents alike, the reasons for the sudden rash of six week anti-abortion bills making headway in state legislatures are as much to do with timing and opportunity as they are with Porter and her group’s determined lobbying.
Separate to this push by Faith2Action, Alabama’s senate passed a different sort of abortion law that would ban all abortions at any stage of pregnancy, going further than any other state in the US.
Porter’s advocacy for six-week bans was originally seen as too hardline even by other anti-abortion conservatives. Porter’s first attempt to push such a law dates back to 2011 in Ohio, with conservative politicians initially refusing to take it up, and the state governor, John Kasich, vetoing versions of the bill that passed in 2016 and 2018. However, it passed in Ohio on another attempt earlier this year.
Now, model legislation like Porter’s has become an increasingly important part of the toolkit of those seeking to effect national change from the bottom up, inspiring politicians in numerous states to take up similar legislation.
Lobbyists and interest groups have promoted “cut-and-paste” laws to state legislators in the hope of gradually changing the national legal and political climate on particular issues.
The recent push on abortion bills has not always met with success. In 2018, a similar bill passed in Iowa but was struck down by the state court, and another died in committee in Pennsylvania. This year, however, aside from Georgia, bills have also passed into law in Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio – though in all cases they are subject to challenge, and yet to be enacted.
Observers believe that the big push on abortion laws is prompted by a desire by anti-abortion activists and social conservatives to bring the issue back to the supreme court, which has swung decisively conservative with Donald Trump’s appointment of two new judges, especially Brett Kavanaugh who is widely seen as a hardliner on the issue.
Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, said many anti-abortion groups share Porter’s sense that “with the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh… [they] now have the votes to uphold the ‘heartbeat’ bill on the United States supreme court” and challenge the landmark Roe v Wade decision that guaranteed abortion rights in the US.
Norma McCorvey, pictured, was the real name of the woman known as “Jane Roe” in the landmark 1973 US supreme court case Roe v Wade, which established the right of American women to have abortions.
McCorvey became the plaintiff in 1970 after she met with two lawyers looking for a test case to challenge the abortion ban in Texas, where it was a crime unless a woman's life was at risk. Similar statutes were in place in nearly every other state at the time.
At the time, McCorvey was pregnant, unmarried, unemployed and unable to obtain an abortion legally or otherwise.
The case went to the supreme court, which handed down the watershed ruling that a woman's right to make her own medical decisions, including the choice to have an abortion, is protected under the 14th amendment.
McCorvey never had an abortion. Her case, which proceeded largely without her involvement, took too long to resolve, and she gave birth to a child that she placed for adoption.
Several years after the ruling, she publicly revealed her identity and became involved in the pro-abortion rights movement. But after a conversion to Christianity, she became an anti-abortion rights activist. Before she died in 2017, McCorvey had said it was her wish to see Roe v Wade overturned in her lifetime.
Conservative legislators have begun to see passing such extreme anti-abortion laws as more than a futile political gesture, helping explain why Republican politicians across the US have so enthusiastically taken them up.
“Conservative state legislators are anticipating that a six-week abortion ban will make it to the [supreme court] in its new configuration,” Nash said.
George Hawley, who teaches political science and researches rightwing politics and religion at the University of Alabama, agrees that anti-abortion forces have sensed they have a vital moment of opportunity under the Trump administration.
“Given the current makeup of the supreme court, this is potentially the pro-life movement’s best opportunity to overturn Roe v Wade in a generation”, he said.
Hawley thinks that the pro-life movement feels that the GOP owes them a political debt for its loyal support at the ballot box.
“The GOP has raised massive sums for many decades on the promise that it would overturn Roe v Wade if it won enough elections to put a conservative majority on the court”, Hawley said. “The pro-life activists who have given so much to the Republican party can reasonably insist on a push on abortion now.”
There was a previous smaller wave of such bills earlier in the current decade. In 2013 and 2014, Alabama, Arkansas, North Dakota and Wyoming all deliberated over laws which either died in committee, or were struck down by federal courts in rulings that the supreme court did not choose to hear challenges to.
Nash said that the new wave of bills are in keeping with a longer strategy among abortion opponents of “tying some measure of fetal activity to abortion bans” and that fetal heartbeat has an emotive charge.
Faith2Action’s advocacy and provision of the bills is a part of a broad front of related efforts on the Christian right. Initiatives like Project Blitz have attempted to forward a broad slate of “faith friendly” laws around adoption, bible classes and religious exemptions from providing abortions or services to LGBT people.
The ACLU and other civil rights groups are already promising to challenge Georgia’s law.
Frederick Clarkson, a long time researcher of the Christian right suggests said that in part such laws can be seen as “a stunt, with a kind of political intention”.
But he added that given the court’s make-up, “it’s entirely possible that we could see Roe overturned”.