INDIANAPOLIS -- Taking direct aim at Roe v. Wade, lawmakers from several states are proposing broad restrictions on abortion, with the goal of forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the landmark ruling issued 33 years ago today. A bill under consideration in Indiana would ban all abortions, except when continuing the pregnancy would put the woman's life or physical health in danger of "substantial permanent impairment." Similar legislation is pending in Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee.
The bills conflict with the Supreme Court's 1973 rulings establishing abortion as a constitutional right. Roe v. Wade and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, asserted that doctors may consider "all factors ... relevant to the well-being of the patient," including emotional and psychological health.
In the years since, states have adopted a variety of laws to restrict access to abortion or force women to think through alternatives. Those efforts are expected to continue this year; many states are considering proposals to impose new licensing standards on abortion clinics or to require women seeking abortion first to view ultrasound images of their fetus and discuss with a counselor the pain a fetus might feel during the procedure.
More than 50 such bills were passed last year - twice as many as in 2004, according to the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Increasingly, lawmakers opposed to abortion are seeking bolder measures.
Republican Rep. Troy Woodruff, serving his first term in the Indiana Legislature, wrote House Bill 1096 knowing it would conflict with Roe. That was precisely his point: He wants his ban, if passed, appealed to the Supreme Court, in hopes that the justices will overturn Roe and give states the power to make abortion a crime.
"On an issue that's this personal, it should be decided as local as possible," Woodruff said. "We either want these procedures, or we don't. ... And I don't."
The debate unfolds as the Senate prepares to vote on Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. If he's confirmed, and if he and Chief Justice John G. Roberts prove to be staunch anti-abortion votes, a bare majority of justices still would support the core principle of a woman's right to end an unwanted pregnancy. But a retirement or illness among the more liberal justices could change that balance quickly.
At least a dozen states have criminal laws banning abortion. They can't be enforced as long as Roe remains binding. In theory, though, they could take effect immediately upon a reversal, subjecting abortion providers to penalties ranging from 12 months' hard labor in Alabama to 20 years' imprisonment in Rhode Island.
But health-law expert George Annas says the effect of reversing Roe probably would be minimal.
It all depends on the wording of any Supreme Court decision, he said. One plausible scenario would be a limited ruling that returns some control of abortion to the states but recognizes a woman's right to end a pregnancy if her life or health is at stake. If health is interpreted as broadly as it is today - to mean emotional as well as physical health - most women still would be able to claim the right to abortion, although they might need to meet with a psychologist or receive approval from more than one doctor.