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2011 was a pivotal year for abortion laws. States passed dozens of restrictions, nearly a record since 1973. That's when the Supreme Court upheld the decision that legalized abortion. This year, antiabortion groups say they'll focus on passing more restrictions and on a state-by-state campaign to grant constitutional rights to embryos. NPR's Kathy Lohr has that story.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: The antiabortion strategy this year is to pass bills that would ban abortions earlier and to change the legal definition of personhood, an effort that would outlaw abortions. Last week, the National Right to Life Committee announced it will push bills to prohibit abortions at 20 weeks based on the assumption that fetuses can feel pain. Five states have passed this law. Mary Spaulding Balch, state legislative director for the group, says that's just the beginning.

MARY SPAULDING BALCH: No serious challenge - no serious legal challenge has been mounted to any of these law - state laws to date. And we know that these laws work.

LOHR: A version of the Fetal Pain Bill was just introduced in Congress targeting the District of Columbia. Other bills would ban private insurance companies from covering abortions and restrict federal and state funding to any abortion provider. That's a key goal of Americans United for Life

Kellie Fiedorek is an attorney with the antiabortion group.

KELLIE FIEDOREK: So among our top priorities this year is to continue to ensure that Planned Parenthood isn't receiving government funds, to pass clinic regulations that will ensure the health and safety of women, and also to ensure that insurance plans do not cover abortion.

LOHR: Fiedorek says the 2010 midterm elections ushered in new conservative GOP lawmakers, and that led to the passage of more abortion restrictions, a trend she says is likely to persist.

FIEDOREK: Well, in 2011, we saw 47 states consider more than 460 measures related to abortion. We saw 70 laws enacted. And I would expect continuing progress in 2012.

LOHR: Abortion rights groups oppose this new wave of restrictions. The Center for Reproductive Rights is fighting many of the measures in court, including laws in Texas and North Carolina that require doctors to show women ultrasounds and provide a detailed description of the fetus.

Nancy Northup is the group's president.

NANCY NORTHRUP: Well, in 2012, we will fight back relentlessly in the courts and in the lawsuits that we have brought against the antichoice assaults. We will be and are developing new legal theories that will get stronger protection from the courts.

LOHR: So far, the courts have been split in rulings on abortion laws. The center is also battling efforts to increase clinic regulations. Abortion opponents say they will make clinics safer, but Northup says they're unnecessary.

NORTHRUP: So what you see is this attempt to both reduce the number of providers by regulating them out of practice and cutting off funding for insurance. And those are the kind of restrictions that have a big impact, and those are the kind that we're concerned about.

LOHR: And there's another strategy that worries abortion rights activists: the Personhood campaign. It's a state-by-state effort to pass a constitutional amendment that would expand the definition of a person and grant legal rights to embryos.

Earlier this month, the president of Personhood USA, Keith Mason, spoke at the group's forum for GOP presidential hopefuls in South Carolina.

KEITH MASON: And I would say this is an historic event because the most important issue in this race, in all the races, is that of human life. We don't...

LOHR: Personhood initiatives could appear on the ballot in more than half a dozen states. They would ban all abortions and some methods of birth control.

Eleanor Smeal is with the Feminist Majority Foundation, which is fighting the effort.

DR. ELEANOR SMEAL: The Personhood amendments provide a big challenge to us because there are so many circulating. They are circulating them in some of the most important battleground states such as Colorado, Ohio and Nevada.

LOHR: Voters in Colorado and Mississippi have already rejected Personhood initiatives, and not all antiabortion groups endorse the strategy. But they are a way to redefine the political debate over the issue and could provide a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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