Abortion wars are heating up ahead of November elections

Mississippi’s governor just signed a law, more restrictive than in any state, banning abortions after 15 weeks. Iowa’s state Senate is trying to go even further and stop abortions at around six weeks. And 20 Ohio legislators have proposed outlawing all abortions, even if the woman’s life is in danger.

In many state capitols, Republican lawmakers are backing unusually strict antiabortion laws. Many are emboldened by President Donald Trump, who has been more supportive of their agenda than any president in decades. Conservative lawmakers also are eager to get more restrictions on the books in case November’s elections bring a surge of Democrats hostile to them.

Federal courts have immediately blocked many of these antiabortion laws, including Mississippi’s. But they still have a purpose: to set up legal challenges to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationally, at a time when Trump could appoint the justice who helps overturn it.

“Trump has given hope to the pro-life movement,” said Ron Hood, a Republican state representative who introduced the total abortion ban in Ohio.

Under Hood’s bill, women could be criminally punished for aborting an “unborn human.” In an interview, Hood said prosecutors would decide what charges to seek, just as they do in cases of manslaughter or murder.

For years, many antiabortion groups have argued that laws should penalize the doctor, not the woman, but Hood — who calls abortion an “atrocity” — said about a quarter of his colleagues in Ohio’s 99-member House chamber are lined up behind his bill.

“We are seeing extremism on many fronts in the United States today,” said Nancy Northup, chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports abortion rights. “Those who oppose abortion rights are seeing this as a time to push for the most extreme measures.”

About 1 in 4 women have an abortion in their lifetime, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research organization, recently published in the American Journal of Public Health.

In the Trump era, the long-running abortion wars are heating up again, and the country is increasingly divided when it comes to the availability of abortions.

Many Republican-controlled states are ratcheting back access — establishing waiting periods, outlawing common medical procedures and cutting off Medicaid funding.

At the same time, Democratic-controlled states are expanding access to contraception and reproductive health; in Washington state, the governor just required insurers to cover abortion costs.

Charles Donovan, president of the research institute of the Susan B. Anthony List, which promotes politicians who oppose abortion, said the looming midterm elections “certainly do add a push” to get antiabortion laws in the pipeline for a potential Supreme Court challenge.

In 2017, Trump’s first year in the White House, 19 states passed 63 antiabortion restrictions, according to Guttmacher.

Collectively these measures send a loud message, Donovan said. “It’s a cultural message, not just a legal message, to the court,” he said.

Before Trump ran for president, he publicly said he was “very pro-choice.” But when he became a candidate, he promised to appoint judges to reverse Roe v. Wade and won over many Republican voters, including from the religious right, who remain among his steadfast supporters.

They applauded his nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, who has never ruled in an abortion case and evaded questions at his confirmation hearings about Roe v. Wade but who has consistently voted with the court’s conservative majority. Another vacancy on the court would give Trump a chance to increase that majority, a prospect that has thrilled Trump supporters.

The opportunity has not worked out in the past. Justice Anthony Kennedy was once thought to be the missing vote to overturn Roe but instead affirmed the right of women to seek an abortion.

And although Kennedy has been generally supportive of abortion restrictions, he joined the court’s liberals two years ago to strike down a Texas law that was found to impose an undue burden on women.

But Kennedy is 81 and is said to be considering retirement. Two of the court’s liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are 85 and 79, respectively.

The chance to replace one of the three offers abortion opponents “something they never thought they would have: a potential majority on the Supreme Court” who would overturn this landmark decision, said John Weaver, a Republican strategist who has advised Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

While many in Washington are consumed with presidential scandals about alleged mistress payoffs and FBI raids, many people across the country care more about other issues, such as abortion, Weaver said.

“It’s an issue that keeps them tethered to an untethered president,” he said.

Northup said Trump has unleashed a “new level of aggression” among abortion opponents. Recent bills include those that would prosecute doctors who perform an abortion as early as six weeks, make no exception for rape, forbid women from getting an abortion if the reason is a high probability of Down syndrome and, as in Ohio, allow a prosecutor to seek criminal charges against women.

“People better vote on November 6th like their life depends on it,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio. She said the discussion in Columbus of criminally prosecuting women “is so far out of the mainstream” that there is urgency for voters to turn out.

Democrats overwhelmingly support preserving the rights of women to end an unwanted pregnancy.

Democrats say energy is high and record numbers of women are running in November, and they are hoping for wins that could shift the power balance in state capitols.

Conservatives also say they are energized.

Susan Swayze Liebel, coordinator of the National Pro-Life Women’s Caucus for the Susan B. Anthony List, said abortion opponents are working to turn out their base and “keep the momentum going in the states.”

“The Trump effect is the hope effect for the pro-life movement,” Liebel said.

More than 90 percent of abortions are performed before 13 weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A Pew Research poll last year found that 69 percent of Americans did not want Roe v. Wade to be overturned. That ruling gives a women the right to an abortion up to the point where the fetus is viable outside the uterus, which is generally considered around 24 weeks.

But Pew also showed a stark party split — 75 percent of Democrats said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 65 percent of Republicans believed it should be illegal in those cases.

A big Republican-wave election in 2010, after the election of Barack Obama, sharply increased GOP and conservative clout in states, and that clout remains today.

Since then, 33 states have passed laws to limit abortion.

In Texas, an increasingly hostile environment for abortion providers contributed to the closures of 20 clinics, abortion rights groups said, about half of those in the state. In the Republican strongholds of Mississippi and Kentucky, only one clinic is left.

In certain parts of the country, “it is unequivocally much harder now to access abortion care than any year since Roe v. Wade,” Northup said.

Elizabeth Nash, the state policy analyst at Guttmacher, said abortion services are increasingly out of reach for many women because of the distance they would have to travel to a clinic and the cost. Women in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and other states have a far harder time than those on the West Coast and in many parts of New England, where ending an unwanted pregnancy is easier and cheaper.

About 75 percent of women who seek abortions are poor or have a low income, according to Guttmacher.

“Roe has already fallen in the practical sense for many women,” said Copeland, of the abortion rights group in Ohio. “They are forced to continue pregnancy, sometimes even if it’s not what is best for their health, because they cannot get past the travel and financial hurdles.”

The Post’s Robert Barnes contributed to this report.