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In three years, states passed more abortion restrictions than in the past three decades

Win McNamee

The Massachusetts' abortion clinic "buffer zone" law that the Supreme Court struck down Thursday was a bit of rarity in recent reproductive health.

It was a law that aimed to increase access to abortions at a time when abortion restrictions dominate state legislatures.

There has been a massive surge in abortion restrictions in the past three years. States passed more anti-abortion laws between 2011 and 2013 than in the three prior decades combined, according to Guttmacher Institute data.


There's nothing parallel happening with laws that increase abortion access. There was one law passed last year in California, which allowed more medical professionals, such as midwives, to terminate pregnancies. But that law was mostly notable because it was the first in years to increase access.

A handful of factors help explain the surge in abortion restrictions that began in 2011. Republicans gained control of many state legislatures during the 2010 midterms, making it easier to pass some of the abortion restrictions that had previously failed to garner enough political support.

The Affordable Care Act likely played a role too, as it catalyzed a national debate over whether government-subsidized health insurance plans would pay for abortions. Many of the abortion laws passed since 2011 target this exact issue; 25 states now restrict abortion coverage in plans offered in the new health insurance exchanges.

Last, other abortion laws were gaining traction around the same time. There's been an increasingly successful campaign to ban later-term abortions, a movement that began when Nebraska passed a 2010 law barring pregnancy terminations after 20 weeks. Twelve states now have such bans on the books, although Arizona's was recently ruled unconstitutional.

When one state has success with an abortion restriction, whether its a ban at 20-weeks or restricting coverage on the exchanges, other states will often follow. The pro-life movement has an infrastructure to support this kind of collaboration: Americans United for Life will often write model bills that legislators in other states can use to introduce a particular type of restriction. That type of infrastructure makes it easier for one idea to spread through different state legislatures, and increase the number of restrictions on the books.