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About Women

Institute Reports on Legislative Trends

January 19, 1986|JANICE MALL

In its annual tracking of state legislation on reproductive issues, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a national research organization concerned with family planning, has found that 1985 saw more state laws enacted in this field than at any time since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion.

Sixty-five laws in this area were enacted in the 49 states that held legislative sessions last year. Topics included abortion, family planning services, reproductive issues concerning minors, sterilization and maternal and child health. The trend appears to be that new legislation is no longer dominated by the abortion issue, as it had been since 1973 when many states began to attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court mandate. More than a third of the new laws are concerned with family planning and maternal and infant health. The institute attributed the decrease in legislative attacks on abortion to the fact that courts have struck down most state laws that tried to get around the Supreme Court decision, and in 1983 the high court held that several common legislative restrictions on abortion were unconstitutional.

However, public funding for abortions for indigent women continued to hold the attention of legislators around the country. Excluding the poor appears to be the most popular way legislators can legally express their displeasure with abortion. Currently 30 states prohibit funding for abortions for indigent women except in cases where the women's lives are endangered. Only 14 states and the District of Columbia pay for all abortions for the poor, but five of these, including California, do so only because of court orders. California accounts for almost half of all publicly funded abortions in the country. The California Legislature has attempted to limit abortion funding every year since 1981, and its 1985 version, which would have limited funding to cases of life endangerment, rape, incest and fetal abnormality, has been struck down by state court rulings which stipulate that if the state pays for childbirth for poor women it must also pay for abortions, citing the equal protection clause of the state's constitution.

Another new trend in legislation around the country represents a reaction to the wave of bombings, arson, threats, vandalism and harassment at abortion facilities in 1984. In 1985 several states enacted laws providing stiff penalties for illegal activity against abortion providers, and others passed resolutions condemning this violence. The most important law, the institute said, is Washington State's Anti-Harassment Act of 1985 which, while it doesn't mention abortion, outlaws the kinds of actions that have been taken by anti-abortion demonstrators against clinics and patients--threats, intimidation, blockades of entrances, pushing and shoving. The Washington law declares that "prevention of serious, personal harassment is an important government objective" and makes illegal "the repeated invasions of a person's privacy by acts and threats which show a pattern of harassment designed to coerce, intimidate or humiliate the victim."

Massachusetts raised its sentence for illegal use of a bomb from five years to 25 years. Wisconsin made trespassing at an abortion facility a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine. California passed a law that specifically classifies as a felony any attempts to bomb or commit arson near health facilities or places where organizations counsel either for or against abortion.

There was a sharp drop in the number of bombings and arson fires in 1985. However, according to the National Abortion Federation quoted by Guttmacher, the incidents of threats, invasions, vandalism and other kinds of violence against clinics increased last year.

What the institute called the "most troubling" legislative trend in 1985 were attempts to attach restrictions on abortion counseling to family-planning appropriations bills, another of the few legal means of curbing abortion for legislators who oppose it. Most family planning agencies dispense information about abortion as one of the options for unplanned pregnancies. A drawn-out battle in California last year ended in November when the state Supreme Court struck down a clause in the $40-million appropriation for family-planning services in the 1986 budget that would have prohibited funding to any family-planning provider that performed or promoted abortion or received any gain from abortion referrals. But the court did not deal with the issue of abortion or women's rights. It declared that the clause was illegal because the state Constitution prohibits amending laws in unrelated pieces of legislation.

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