40-plus years after Roe v. Wade, opponents press for limitations
The Supreme Court had just declared abortion to be a fundamental right — a landmark ruling that emboldened a then-41-year-old housewife to take action.
“I was a mom and had young children at the time, and I just couldn't imagine that our country had decriminalized abortion,” recalled Mary Lou Gartner of Penn Hills, a mother of six. “... I told everyone I was headed to Washington because, ‘We've got to stop this.' ”
Gartner began her crusade against abortion with the inaugural March for Life in Washington on Jan. 22, 1974, the first anniversary of the court's 7-2 decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade.
Now 84, Gartner is coordinating 90 busloads carrying more than 5,000 anti-abortion marchers from Western Pennsylvania headed to Washington on Friday.
National organizers say this year's gathering is poised to be “the biggest pro-life rally in the world.” They are encouraged that after decades of relative stagnancy, momentum appears to be building nationally to advance state legislation in line with pro-life agendas.
More than four decades after Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion advocates increasingly are persuading state legislatures to pass more limitations on women seeking abortions, and more regulations on the clinics and doctors providing them.
“We're in the midst of this wave of abortion restrictions at the state levels that is not abating,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior policy analyst with the Washington-based Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. “It looks like 2016 is going to be another year where we see a couple dozen restrictions enacted.”
Lawmakers approved 288 restrictions on abortions across 31 states between 2000 and 2015, more than in any five-year period since the 1973 ruling, according to Guttmacher's bill-tracking. That's nearly as many as the 292 restrictions enacted in the previous 15 years combined.
Last year, 17 states passed a total of 57 abortion regulations.
Such efforts are gaining traction from an influx of Republican-dominated legislatures; lobbying by conservative and faith-based groups; and last year's release of controversial videos purporting to expose nefarious activity by Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider.
Abortion rights advocates say the restrictions reduce access to abortion as a health care option and hurt low-income, minority and rural women the most.
“We need to somehow harness our power to make sure the politicians don't keep passing these bills that are aimed at this one thing, which is reducing access,” said Aleigha Cavalier, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania.
Legislation in the works
Pennsylvania, with a GOP-controlled legislature, joins Texas, Michigan and Missouri as having the most stringent abortion laws.
Pennsylvania does not allocate money directly to Planned Parenthood but funds nonprofit Family Planning Councils that can award subgrants to Planned Parenthood for services such as breast cancer screenings.
Rep. Kathy Rapp, a Warren County Republican who chairs the House Pro-Life Caucus, said she plans to submit “pro-life legislation” to add to the state's rules.
“We are looking at what a lot of other states are doing,” Rapp said.
Rapp would not specify regulations and limitations the bill would seek to enact. She supports extending waiting periods, requiring women to view ultrasounds of the fetus and banning the use of telemedicine for medication abortions, even though that option is not available in Pennsylvania.
Rapp said she's confident there are enough votes in the House and Senate to pass a bill, though she suspects Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would veto it.
“Obviously, we have a governor who is very much pro-choice, pro-abortion, pro-Planned Parenthood, so that's a huge barrier to us,” Rapp said.
Between 2010 and 2013, 70 U.S. abortion clinics closed, including 27 in Texas and about a dozen each in Arizona and in Michigan.
The number of Pennsylvania clinics dropped from 24 to 19 since a law passed in response to the discovery of Dr. Kermit Gosnell's so-called “house of horrors” Philadelphia abortion clinic, state Department of Health records show. Gosnell went to prison for killing three babies born alive.
Pennsylvania requires clinics to meet the same standards as surgical centers, including higher sterilization and equipment standards, monthly safety inspections and registered nurses on staff.
Planned Parenthood spent about $300,000 to comply at its Downtown Pittsburgh clinic. The clinic had to expand some rooms, replace tile floors with laminate flooring and hire staff.
Critics say the law went too far.
“What the state has done is essentially require abortion clinics to become mini-hospitals, versus regulating them appropriately, given the safe nature of abortion,” Nash said.
But, said Gretchen Cararie, 70, an anti-abortion activist from Adams: “If people say, with the rules there's no place to go, well maybe that's better than a bad place.”
Fewer women are seeking abortions. Nationwide, abortions are down about 12 percent since 2010, a survey last summer by The Associated Press found.
In Pennsylvania, abortions peaked at 66,777 in 1980. The Health Department recorded about 31,100 abortions in 2013, down 12.7 percent from 2010.
It's difficult to gauge the extent to which clinic closures contributed to the decline. Teen pregnancy rates have fallen, birth control use is up and fewer women are at a child-bearing age than decades ago.
Recruiting young leaders
Public opinion on abortion hasn't shifted much since Roe v. Wade. About half the American public has tended to favor abortion in most cases.
But recent polling suggests an uptick in support for abortions. In a December Associated Press-GfK online survey, 58 percent of 1,007 U.S. adults surveyed said they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 51 percent who said so in January 2015.
The same study, conducted three weeks after a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, found one-third of Americans want stricter abortion laws and one-quarter think the laws should be less strict.
Anti-abortion groups are working to recruit young adults to take up their cause.
“Kids have been born into a culture where abortion's always been legal,” said Cararie, who is coordinating eight March for Life buses from Butler County. “We can't let these kids grow up thinking that just because it's legal, it's OK.”
Friday's March for Life event will begin with a noon rally outside the Washington Monument. The 1.8-mile march will end at the steps to the Supreme Court.
Gartner cannot make it this year because of health reasons, but two of her children will be there.
“In the beginning, it was more of an older crowd, mostly housewives,” Gartner said. “Now, the younger generation is taking over.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.