States' Debate on Abortion Heats Up

As the Senate begins final debate on Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, some states are imposing or considering broad restrictions on abortion. The ultimate goal is to force the high court to revisit its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Watching the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito unfold, you might think the high court is the only place that matters when it comes to abortion. Not so. More states are taking action to restrict abortions, while changes in the makeup in the Supreme Court have raised the hopes of pro-lifers who want to overturn Roe vs. Wade. That's the 1973 decision that legalized abortion. NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Tom Brinkman is a pro-life state legislator in Ohio. He runs his own business as a commercial printer. He's a father of six. Now more than ever, he says it's time to take on Roe v. Wade, from Ohio.

Rep. TOM BRINKMAN (Republican, Ohio): There's the old guard in the pro-life movement, which is very incremental, very much playing around the edges, and then there is the, kind of, the people who are sick of playing around the edges, and saying let's take it on right away. You know, let's move it ahead, let's push it up the field. And that's what we're kind of doing.

LEWIS: He's introduced a bill that would ban all abortions in Ohio, except those that would save a woman's life.

Rep. BRINKMAN: Our effort is to try to have a test case that would go in front of the Supreme Court, and we realize that the bill isn't going to happen, turning the law overnight, and the law wouldn't be challenged for many years. But, you know, you've got to start somewhere.

LEWIS: In the meantime, there's been an up-surge in state efforts to curb abortion. Last year, 58 new laws restricting abortion went on the books. That's twice as many as the year before. Pro-choice advocates are also thinking ahead, in case Roe v. Wade is eventually overturned. Some states would move to protect abortion rights, but Nancy Keenan, head of the advocacy group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, is worried.

Ms. NANCY KEENAN (President, NARAL Pro-Choice America): If Roe were to be overturned, 19 states in this country would immediately outlaw abortion care. Nineteen. And then that leaves, basically, the other states that have other laws on the books that make it so difficult to access abortion care, with biased counseling, with regulations for clinics that are, exceed what we have to have in hospitals. So, there has been a consistent strategy here to make it very difficult for women to access care.

LEWIS: Yale law professor Jack Balkin is thinking, too, about the political changes that might be wrought if Roe is ever turned. He thinks it would split Republican moderates from hard-core pro-lifers.

Professor JACK BALKIN (Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment, Yale University): Once the issue of criminalization of abortion is on the table, you'll find a fissure between people who would rather have more restrictions on abortion, and people who would like to have almost complete prohibition on abortion. Those people will find themselves no longer on the same side. That's what happens when you change the agenda that legislatures can consider.

LEWIS: Balkin, who is pro-choice, says he thinks many republicans understand that to destroy Roe completely could destroy their coalition.

Prof. BALKIN: And that's why republican politicians at the national level have tried to preserve Roe while chipping away at it, whereas, some politicians at the state level, that's not their concern. They have a different set of concerns.

LEWIS: All of which, Balkin says, could make for unknown politics and policies in the days to come.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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