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Life after Carhart

The high court's 2007 decision on partial-birth abortion stirs up statehouses in 2008

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

A year ago this month, Denise Burke surveyed the state legislative landscape and didn't like what she saw. The Americans United for Life vice president and legal director had noticed that on abortion, some state lawmakers seemed mired in lethargy. Overall in 2006 states introduced fewer bills regulating abortion and protecting women from its harmful effects than in the two previous years.

Among some legislators, Burke said, "There was a little bit of the thought process, 'we've done everything we need to do' on abortion."

What a difference a year makes.

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In 2007, states considered approximately 400 bills regulating abortion, an increase of more than 50 percent over 2006, and in 2008, the tally could be much higher. Among the catalysts: Gonzales v. Carhart.

In the landmark decision of last April, the Supreme Court upheld the congressional ban on partial-birth abortion, marking the first federal abortion restriction of any kind since Roe v. Wade. In addition to its startlingly frank language on the morality of abortion, harm caused to women, and what actually occurs during certain procedures, the court reaffirmed states' legitimate interest in regulating abortion. Perhaps more importantly, the 5-4 majority held that pro-abortion groups may no longer challenge abortion regulations as unconstitutional simply because they are abortion regulations.

Instead, the court established an "as applied" standard-which requires individual plaintiffs to ask that a law not be applied to them because of their particular circumstances.

The ruling seemed to reenergize some pro-life lawmakers. Beginning in July, AUL began fielding legislative consulting requests-or requests for advice on drafting pro-life bills-from around the states. "In the eight years I've been here, we've never gotten them that early," Burke said.

Nor in such quantity: In the latter half of 2007, AUL fielded three times as many requests for help with state legislation as in previous years.

Among those touching base with AUL: Alan Nunelee, a Republican who has served in the Mississippi statehouse since 1995. "The Carhart decision caught us all by surprise," Nunelee said. "There was conventional wisdom that said the court . . . was going to continue to allow the status quo to exist."

Instead, Nunelee said, the ruling opened new possibilities for pro-life lawmakers who support "incrementalism," a strategy that aims to curb the number of abortions law by law, state by state.

A February 2007 study conducted for the Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis by University of Alabama political science professor Michael New found that the abortion rate among minors plummeted by 50 percent between 1985 and 1999, compared with an overall abortion decline of 29 percent. Although a number of factors contributed to the precipitous drop among minors, New found that laws requiring parental involvement and abortion-funding restrictions correlated with abortion declines of 16 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

In Mississippi, which carries the nation's toughest parental involvement law (both parents must consent), abortions are down 60 percent overall. "We may not have put the ball in the end zone yet," Nunelee said, "but we are definitely in the red zone, and very close to becoming the first abortion-free state in America."

Galvanized by Carhart, Nunelee intends to introduce multiple measures this year, including one that prevents abortionists from operating as off-shore corporations and from purchasing medical malpractice insurance through foreign carriers. "We want to make sure abortionists are operating as Mississippi businesses" so that they can be more easily held accountable in cases where they injure women. "I think that's something we could win post-Carhart if a challenge reached the Supreme Court."

Kansas Republican Lance Kinzer's plans for 2008 have less to do with Carhart than with the refusal of Kansas officials to enforce state laws prohibiting late-term abortion. For more than three years, the state has been a flashpoint in the abortion debate as officials battled over late-term abortions allegedly performed by Planned Parenthood and infamous late-term specialist George Tiller.

"Much of our legislation this year will be interacting with the shortfall we see on the enforcement side," as officials from the governor to the attorney general to the courts seem loath to shut down Tiller's operation, even though documentary evidence shows he likely operates in violation of Kansas law.

Still, Kinzer said, Carhart has had a significant impact on pro-life deliberations in the Kansas statehouse. First, the new "as-applied" standard will allow lawmakers to see how regulations play out in practice, rather than having them shot dead in the cradle. Also, "the importance of Carhart has been that in drafting new legislation, we have a very up-to-date opinion that lets us ask the question, 'How far can we push?'"

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