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A run for the border

National | Effort to evade Pennsylvania's abortion regulation law highlights its effectiveness in reducing abortions; other states' legal protections are proving similarly effective

Issue: "Cleaning up Longview," Nov. 23, 1996

Try as they might, the pro-abortion forces couldn't transform Rosa Hartford's trial into a judgment of Pennsylvania's restrictions on abortion. The judge, the prosecutor, and the jury instead focused on the proper issue: Mrs. Hartford was charged with interfering with the custody of a child when she took a 13-year-old girl into New York for an abortion without asking--or even telling--the youngster's mother.

From the moment this case became known, arch-advocates like Kathryn Kolbert of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy set up a howl, calling the case a thinly veiled attempt to restrict the right to an abortion. But as prosecutor Max Little said before the trial in late October: "They are arguing that this is a terrible blow to abortion rights, but that's not true at all unless we're talking about abortion rights for children under 13."

Perhaps the howl is the howl of the injured as the abortionists watch cutting-edge laws like Pennsylvania's trim little by little into their industry. In the post-Casey age, with the U.S. Supreme Court affirming laws that regulate abortion, more and more states are enacting statutes that require common-sense, protective half-measures rather than the unfettered approach allowed under Roe.

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By all appearances, the laws are having their desired effect. The statistics in Mrs. Hartford's home state bear testimony to their impact. In the year the Pennsylvania laws took effect, abortions among teenagers under 17 dropped by nearly a quarter.

Pennsylvania's laws, which were enacted under the guidance of then-Gov. Robert Casey and which have passed Supreme Court muster, require parental consent for minors, informed consent, and a 24-hour "reflection" period.

"The laws," says attorney Judith Koehler of Americans United for Life, "have been very positive with respect to public policy. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Health [numbers] reflect a statistical decline in the number of abortions performed on all women, the number of live births to teenage girls, and the number of pregnancies to teenage girls. . . . When those three things happen together, that's good public policy."

Even before Pennsylvania began to regulate abortions, the rate had been decreasing from an all-time high in 1980, Ms. Koehler says. But with the protective laws in place, the drop was significantly greater than the previous year. In 1994, under the new laws, the abortion rate declined by more than 13 percent compare to a 2 percent decline the previous year.

For children, the decrease in abortions was almost double that of the rate in general. "In 1994," Ms. Koehler says, "there was a 22.4 percent decrease in the abortion rate for girls 17 years of age and under from the previous year."

While the laws have been reason for some women like Mrs. Hartford to sneak out of the state to assist a minor, the laws have reduced the number of women coming to Pennsylvania for abortions from other states: The out-of-state rates dropped by 25 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health's annual report on abortion published in July 1995.

Mississippi, which requires two-parent consent for minors as well as a 24-hour waiting period and informed consent, is showing similarly positive results. (Mississippi also requires any office that performs more than 10 abortions per month to be licensed.)

The number of abortions in Mississippi went from 8,184 in 1991 to 7,555 in 1992 to 6,002 in 1993. By 1995, the number of abortions had dropped to 3,563.

"When you have regulatory measures plus reporting requirements," Ms. Koehler says, "you can see the effect."

Ms. Koehler sees plenty of cause for optimism, as the issue of abortion continues to divide into more focused elements--from the breast cancer link to partial-birth abortion--that provide a clearer picture of just what abortion is about and the hazards it heralds.

Three states, so far, have passed laws that require clinics to inform their patients that having an abortion elevates their risk of developing breast cancer.

With the release in October of a study that adds potency to the evidence, Ms. Koehler expects other states to follow the lead of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Montana. And, in the absence of a federal ban, Americans United for Life is receiving more requests from state lawmakers for help in passing prohibitions of partial-birth abortions.

"When it comes to state law, there will be numerous states that will introduce bans on partial-birth abortions," Ms. Koehler says. "Utah passed one last year, and so did Michigan. Ohio had the very first one even prior to the introduction of the one in Congress. I look for several others to try next year, and I think there will be some successes."

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