The New Push for Abortion Restrictions

Insurance coverage has dominated the plodding national abortion debate for months, but fast-tracked abortion legislation continues to emerge on the state level. Georgia legislators are currently revising the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (H.B. 1155), which is expected to make it to the House floor next month. The bill would make it a felony to provide coerced, sex-selective, or race-selective abortions, in what could become a new legislative track for state abortion restrictions.

The bill surfaced in mid-February, around the same time as billboards in the Atlanta area, some of which show images of black infants and say, "Black children are an endangered species." The 80 billboards, which have gotten national attention, direct viewers to, a website paid for by Georgia Right to Life and designed by the Radiance Foundation.

This provocative pro-life campaign comes on the heels of the pro-choice community's response to Focus on the Family's Super Bowl commercial that featured football star Tim Tebow and his mom in what turned out to be a shockingly non-controversial ad. In the fallout of what was widely viewed as an overreaction (the National Organization for Women gathered petition signatures urging CBS to pull the ad) and inconsistent in terms of messaging (Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that "for abortion rights supporters, picking on Tim Tebow and his mom is not the way to go"), the pro-life movement sees an opportunity.

The Tebow ad, the Georgia Right to Life billboards, and the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act all appeal to middle-of-the-road folks, a strategy that Kissling and Michelman noted in the Post piece. The pro-life movement "knows to save the fire and brimstone for their hardcore base," they wrote. After all, who isn't opposed to eugenics or racism?

Catherine Davis, the director of minority outreach for GRTL and the brain behind the billboard campaign, saw evidence of race-targeted outreach in Planned Parenthood's response to the Tebow ad: a video that features two black athletes talking about choice, providing current fodder for the campaign. Davis said she is surprised that pro-choice advocates haven't joined her to help educate the black community about her belief that "race and gender selection and coerced abortions are happening today" and should be stopped.

Pro-choice and pro-life supporters agree that the abortion rate among black women is disproportionately high. CDC data shows that blacks have nearly 40% of the country's abortions but make up just 13% of the population. The factors that influence how many women seek abortions include unintended pregnancy rates, access to contraception and corresponding education, and the number of providers (which has been declining for the past decade) according to the Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood. Where pro-choice supporters see a lack of reproductive health care services, pro-life supporters see eugenics.

Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, states have been largely responsible for regulating abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, "The most common restrictions in effect are parental notification or consent requirements for minors, state-sponsored counseling and waiting periods, and limitations on public funding." Until recently, the only bans on sex-selective abortions were prohibitions in Illinois and Pennsylvania, enacted in 1984 and 1989, respectively. "This introduction of race is new," says Elizabeth Nash, a Public Policy Associate with the Guttmacher Institute. In 2009, Oklahoma became the first state to restrict abortions based on sex and race selection, but the law never went into effect after it was struck down by a state court based on procedural technicalities.

Besides the Georgia bill, Arizona, Mississippi, and New Jersey have also introduced legislation that would criminalize sex and race selection, and four other states are considering legislation that would criminalize sex selection. Even if these bills go into effect, it's not possible to ascertain whether the number of abortions or the number of abortion providers will drop. Still, Catherine Davis told me, "I absolutely pray and hope that the number [of black women seeking abortions] will decline" in response to Georgia's Fetal Nondiscrimination Act.

What this could mean beyond Georgia, a state with a D grade from Naral for its abortion laws, is potentially significant for abortion providers. As Dr. Vanessa Cullins, Vice President for Medical Affairs of Planned Parenthood, said during a press conference sponsored by Reproductive Health Reality Check last week, the billboard campaign "is clearly a forerunner to what the anti[-abortion advocate]s are planning for the entire country."

With non-discrimination legislation being tested in a handful of states, "a lot will depend on what happens in Georgia," says Elizabeth Nash. "What they're getting at is they want to ban abortion and they want to demonize providers." Whether the eugenics message and corresponding anti-discrimination legislation will catch on remains to be seen, but Davis said that organizations in other states have already approached her about repeating the endangered species billboard campaign.

Thumbnail image credit: Rachel Troyer/Wikimedia Commons