Abortion Restrictions Shutter Clinics, Hurt Poor, Groups Say

Anti-abortion activists say new restrictions across the country aim for safety.

Anti-abortion activists protest at the March for Life rally on Jan. 23, 2012, in Washington, D.C.
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It took some time for Brandy, 28, to scrape together the funds for her procedure at the only abortion clinic left in Mississippi. But on the day of her visit, staff at the Jackson Women's Health Organization had bad news: They couldn't help.

The window for abortion providers in Mississippi is 16 weeks, but Brandy was more than 17 weeks pregnant. Not only would she quickly have to find care outside Mississippi, but the cost of the procedure would increase — late-stage operations always are more risky and more expensive.

Brandy's finances were in shambles. She was unemployed with three kids, and her father was helping to pay her bills. In Mississippi, 23 other states and D.C., Medicaid does not cover abortion costs except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother.

"That money that I did come across – which was $150 for the first visit – to me, I thought it went down the drain, because I had no idea how I would get the rest of the money," says Brandy, who did not want to give her last name, more than two months later. 

[READ: Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Arizona Abortion Appeal]

According to a recent report published by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that promotes abortion rights, the U.S. has seen more abortion restrictions enacted at the state level in the last two years than across the span of the previous decade. The laws have led to the shuttering of abortion clinics in some states, and pro-abortion rights activists say they impose a particular burden on low-income women like Brandy, who eventually obtained an abortion in neighboring Alabama with funding help from the National Organization for Women.

"Abortion opponents have been stalled at the federal level to pass most abortion restrictions, and so over time they have really looked to the states as a place where abortion could be restricted," says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute's Washington, D.C., office and an author of the report.

The shift began just after the 2010 elections, Nash says, when voters in several states elected more conservative lawmakers. While pro-abortion rights groups, such as NARAL Pro-Choice America, say the new legislation is "out of step with American values," anti-abortion groups say the moves are in line with the view of the general populace.

The most recent Gallup survey showed more Americans identifying as "pro-life" versus "pro-choice" by a narrow margin, though that has fluctuated in recent years.

"A lot of the legislation that is being passed is viewed by the general public as reasonable, full of common sense, and they support it, they're OK with it," says Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee.

Tobias highlights parental consent laws as an example of what she says is common-sense legislation.

"Parents should be involved if their 15- or 16-year-old girl is pregnant and considering an abortion," Tobias says. "She can't get an aspirin from the school nurse without their permission, she can't get her ears pierced without their permission, but in more than 20 states in this country she can get an abortion without their permission.

"Those are the kinds of regulations that states have been passing, and the average person on the street will think that makes a lot of sense."

Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, points to the Kermit Gosnell case – in which an abortion provider in Philadelphia who carried out late-term abortions was convicted of murder – as another reason the new regulations have been successful.

Scheidler says the trial raised awareness about clinics that were revealed to be "filthy and unsafe."

"I think that [case] really provided an opportunity for pro-lifers around the country to call upon authorities in their own states and seek out some additional restrictions," he says.

The legislative flurry is reflected in two recent rankings of states by those on opposing sides of the abortion debate. While NARAL gives states like Arizona, Alabama and Texas failing grades in a just-released report looking at abortion regulations, the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life in its own report names the same three states "All-Stars" for the "enactment of protective, common-sense legislation."

Clarified 1/15/14: This story has been modified to clarify that Arizona’s abortion ban applied in most circumstances, but not all.