Last Monday’s March for Life highlighted some of the recent success that the pro-life movement has enjoyed at the federal level. Indeed, since the election of President Bush in 2000, the pro-life movement has enjoyed a greater opportunity to both pass protective laws and support judicial appointees sympathetic to the constitutionality of pro-life legislation. Overall, a number of events, including the passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito have given the pro-life movement good reason for optimism.
However, many continue to overlook the progress that pro-lifers have made at the state level. Buoyed by both the protection that state laws received from the Supreme Court’s Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision in 1992 and the gains that Republicans made in many state legislatures during the 1994 elections, the pro-life movement succeeded in enacting an impressive amount of protective legislation during the mid- to late 1990s. That trend has continued into the present decade. For instance, since 2000 at least four additional states–Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Oklahoma–have enacted parental-involvement laws.
Additionally, since 2000, at least seven additional states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia, have passed informed-consent or “women’s right to know” laws. These laws give women seeking abortions information about the development of their unborn child, health risks involved with abortion, and public and private sources of support for single mothers. Furthermore, many other states passed laws designed to strengthen existing pro-life legislation during this time.
Even better, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these laws are having a real impact. For instance, in recent years, Mississippi has enacted more pro-life laws than any other state. In 2004, six pro-life bills were signed into law there, including the most expansive conscience-exception law in the nation and a fetal-homicide bill. As a result of all this legislation, the abortion rate in Mississippi has been cut in half, and there is only one abortion clinic remaining in the entire state.
Furthermore, recent research of mine for the Heritage Foundation provides even more evidence about the effectiveness of state-level pro-life legislation. I analyzed abortion data from nearly every state for every year from 1985 to 1999. It shows that the most common types of pro-life legislation, including parental-involvement laws, Medicaid-funding restrictions, informed-consent laws, and partial-birth-abortion bans, are all correlated with declines in the abortion rate.
In the Heritage study I also compares the effects of enacted pro-life legislation to the effects of pro-life legislation nullified through judicial rulings. This strengthens the analysis, since the states which are approving pro-life legislation are likely to be relatively similar to one another in terms of mores, politics, and ideology. The results indicate that enacted laws are correlated with abortion declines, whereas nullified laws have little effect. This provides additional evidence that state-level legislation has been effective at reducing the incidence of abortion.
All in all it seems likely that state legislation was a key factor in the 18 percent decline in the number of abortions performed in the United States between 1990 and 1999. This should be heartening to activists in the pro-life movement. It clearly shows that pro-life political involvement during the past 30 years is finally paying some real dividends. These laws are possible only because pro-life candidates have enjoyed more electoral success in state legislative races and because pro-life presidents have appointed judges who have been more likely to uphold the constitutionality of these laws.
In the future, state-level political activism will only take on a heightened importance. If Roe v. Wade is reversed, the power to protect the unborn will suddenly be returned to the states. And regardless of the short term future of Roe, it seems likely that one of President Bush’s legacies will be a Supreme Court that is sympathetic to more regulation of abortion at the state level. As a result, the current success that pro-lifers are enjoying in the states should provide the right to life movement with a great deal of optimism for the rest of this decade and beyond.
– Michael J. New, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.