AUSTIN, Texas — In June, when Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis launched a 12-hour filibuster to block passage of a bill restricting late-term abortions, NARAL Pro-Choice America and its allies lauded her as a hero.
But legislation banning abortions in Texas after 20 weeks was later approved in a special July session, after thousands of pro-life activists flooded the State Capitol in Austin to show support for the bill. It was signed into law July 18 by Gov. Rick Perry. Further, pro-life legislation in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin could make 2013 a banner year for the pro-life movement.
The American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL are expected to challenge the Texas law, just as they have sought to block similar laws in other states. But the profusion of state laws restricting abortion marks a steady shift in public opinion and in the tactics of the pro-life movement, which struggled during the 2012 election to counter partisan rhetoric attacking their policies as a "war on women."
Activists suggest that recent pro-life legislation at the state level is partly a response to the grisly accounts of late-term abortions and sub-standard care for female patients that accompanied the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Pennsylvania abortionist. Gosnell was convicted of murdering infants who survived abortions and neglecting to properly care for his female patients.
But Texas pro-lifers’ rapid show of force also revealed that the movement is learning to counter the dominance of abortion-rights activists on social media.
"The Gosnell trial was a key factor. It provided a strong opportunity to show the risks and hazards at these abortion clinics across the country," said Jeffery Patterson, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, which coordinated with other local pro-life groups to marshal public support through social media and public rallies.
"Everyone saw the bill as an opportunity to improve the health and safety of women, but also to reduce the number of abortions," Patterson told the Register.
He noted that a pre-filibuster tally revealed that the proposed bill, which limited abortions to 20 weeks and required abortionists to have hospital admitting privileges, already had adequate support in the state Senate. But once Perry announced the special session, state pro-life groups left nothing to chance, using Twitter and Facebook to galvanize supporters.
"A decisive factor in the success of this bill was energizing the grassroots, especially young people, the majority of whom were women, through social media," Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, told the Register.
Just as a pro-life Twitter campaign worked "to shame the traditional media and point out that they were not giving the Gosnell case the attention they deserved," said Patterson, Texas pro-life activists employed Twitter to communicate with their troops and counter misinformation about the bill.
Strong public support for Texas’ late-term abortion restrictions reflects a steady increase in pro-life sentiments across the nation.
A recent Rasmussen poll, noted the Charlotte Lozier Institute’s Michael New, captured the "highest level of public support ever recorded for a pro-life position." The study found that 43% of Americans now describe themselves as "pro-life," while 46% say they are "pro-choice."
Moreover, New pointed out even greater gains over the long term: "Six of the last nine Gallup surveys have found that people were more likely to describe themselves as ‘pro-life’ than ‘pro-choice.’"
States Seize the Moment
Patterson said that Catholic conferences across the country want to seize this fresh opportunity to pass restrictions on abortion, as more Americans recognize that "a life is created at the time of conception."
In Ohio, a budget appropriations bill, signed in July by Republican Gov. John Kasich, included pro-life provisions that identify an unborn child as an "unborn human individual" and direct doctors who perform abortions to explain what the procedure involves to their patients, including medical risks and the "probable gestational age of the embryo or fetus."
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed "Sonya’s Law," which requires that women seeking abortions be asked if they wish to see their unborn children on ultrasound. The bill also requires physicians performing abortion to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their practice.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, another Republican, vowed to sign a bill tightening state regulations for abortion providers, though some activists predicted that the state Senate would resist tougher restrictions included in an updated state House version of the bill.
"During recent elections, we have increased our pro-life presence in the states and have the ability to produce legislation like the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, like the bill that passed out of the House of Representatives on the national level," said Mary Spaulding Balch, director of the department of state legislation for the National Right to Life Committee.
With the governor’s signature on the bill, Balch noted, pro-life legislative pushes have resulted in "10 states signing laws with language stating that when an unborn child reaches the point of development where he or she can feel pain it is illegal to kill those babies by abortion."
The American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL and other abortion-rights advocates have consistently challenged state laws restricting abortion.
A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order against the Wisconsin law signed by Walker on July 5. Lawsuits in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and Virginia have also prompted some federal judges to issue restraining orders for some or all provisions of recent pro-life legislation.
Balch noted that facility regulation has been a favorite target of lawsuits filed by abortion-rights groups. However, most state laws that have adopted the language of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act have not been challenged by abortion-rights activists, she noted.
"Why not? They think what we think: The [legislation will] have five votes in the U.S. Supreme Court," said Balch.
The profusion of state laws restricting late-term abortion, among other provisions, will likely emerge as a key rallying point for partisan forces that attacked pro-life policies as a "war on women" during the 2012 elections, and they are expected to return to this theme in the buildup to the 2014 midterm elections.
After the pro-life victory in Texas, NARAL’s president, Cecile Richards, emailed supporters to urge them to stay committed "for the long run."
For her part, Wendy Davis has already raised an estimated $1 million for her re-election campaign, and she described her June filibuster as symbolic of her party’s larger campaign to protect women’s rights.
"My nearly 13-hour stand against the effort to deny women access to basic health care evolved into a people’s filibuster opposing a selfish and out-of-touch leadership that refuses to listen to real families with real hopes," Davis wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
Young Pro-Life Women
But Joe Pojman of the Texas Alliance for Life challenged Davis’ account of the intense legislative battle in Austin.
"I have been lobbying for 26 years; I was astounded by the number of young women who came to the Capitol to support the bill," said Pojman.
"At first, people were not getting the complete picture from conventional media. The Texas Alliance for Life set up a webpage where we had a dedicated person posting information continually about what was going on and where they should be to help."
Pojman acknowledged that the law will likely be challenged in court, but he expressed confidence that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot, "who has been successful in defending pro-life laws in the past, will do a very good job supporting the law."
Marilyn Musgrave of the Susan B. Anthony List witnessed the political turnaround in Austin firsthand and described the legislative victory as deeply "encouraging."
"We see great things happening in the states," Musgrave told the Register, "and in the process of fighting for tighter restrictions on abortion providers, pro-lifer legislators are exposing weak regulatory oversight of an entire industry — the primary message of the Gosnell trial."
"Abortion providers say, ‘We are providing health care to poor women,’" noted Musgrave, a former three-term congresswoman from Colorado. "So, with the latest round of laws regulating abortion, legislators are saying to them, ‘Okay, provide good health care to poor women.’"