GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the new arena for an old and fiercely fought debate over abortion.
Jeffrey Brown has our update.
JEFFREY BROWN: The central battleground in the debate over abortion rights has shifted in recent years to the states. In just the past two months, five states, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, North Dakota and Virginia, approved more stringent restrictions in abortion.
In North Dakota, for example, the new law prohibits abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can be soon as soon as six weeks.
REP. BETTE GRANDE, R-N.D.: North Dakota believes in the life of the unborn child, believes that the heartbeat is life.
JEFFREY BROWN: Such laws are aimed at undermining the standards set out in the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade. That decision gave women the right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, about 24 weeks into pregnancy.
Speaking last Friday at a Planned Parenthood conference, President Obama took aim at measures designed to limit abortion rights. He told the crowd such policies would -- quote -- "roll back basic rights" when it comes to women's health.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When you read about some of these laws, you want to check the calendar. You want to make sure you are still living in 2013.
Forty years after the Supreme Court affirmed a woman's constitutional right to privacy, including the right to choose, we shouldn't have to remind people that when it comes to a woman's health, no politician should get to decides what's best for you.
JEFFREY BROWN: The president also pledged to fight every step of the way on behalf of Planned Parenthood. Two Republicans in Congress and several GOP-controlled state legislatures have introduced initiatives to defund the organization.
Meanwhile, anti-abortion activists are also pointing to the trial of Philadelphia Dr. Kermit Gosnell, seeking to pressure lawmakers to enact more restrictive regulations for abortion clinics. Gosnell is facing four charges of first-degree murder related to late-term abortion procedures. The jury in that case began its deliberations today.
So how does each side see the focus as it has shifted from Washington to the states? And what's next?
We're joined by Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, and Ilyse Hogue, newly installed president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Welcome to both of you.
ILYSE HOGUE, NARAL Pro-Choice America: Thank you.
CHARMAINE YOEST, Americans United for Life: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ilyse Hogue, let me start with you.
What do you see happening in the states that is leading to all these recent actions?
ILYSE HOGUE: You know, we see an extreme agenda taking hold in some of these states that, first of all, doesn't find support across America. And 70 percent of Americans believe that Roe should be upheld.
And we're seeing out-of-touch politicians actually, not only rolling back women's freedom, but endangering women's lives as they put more and more arbitrary restrictions on women being able to access safe and legal abortion, as is their constitutional right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I know, Charmaine Yoest, you have a different take on it. But why do you think it is happening now? Why so much in the states now?
CHARMAINE YOEST: Well, because America's abortion policy is actually out of touch with the American people.
We have an abortion policy that is so radical that only China and North Korea and Canada have as radical a policy.
JEFFREY BROWN: In what -- how do you use that word radical? What does that mean?
CHARMAINE YOEST: Well, most of the countries around the world start to limit abortion after 12 weeks.
And we can have abortion in America for any reason throughout all nine months of pregnancy. So what you are seeing is, this rising tide of pro-life legislation is being responsive to the fact that most Americans have a commonsense approach to abortion, where they want to see parental consent, informed consent, clinic regulations.
This horrible trial that you are seeing in Philadelphia of Kermit Gosnell with his house of horrors abortion clinic in Philadelphia shows you exactly what happens when you have a completely unregulated abortion industry, allowed to have their own oversight over themselves.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that trial has gotten a lot of attention.
ILYSE HOGUE: I'm outraged.
JEFFREY BROWN: You're outraged.
ILYSE HOGUE: I'm outraged. And I have been out in front saying I'm outrage since I took this position.
I think it's critically important, because it is exactly the arbitrary restrictions, the lack of funding available for women who need safe medical care that has driven these vulnerable women into the clutches of Kermit Gosnell. I get up and go to work every single day to prevent women from being victimized by the likes of Kermit Gosnell.
What we had there was not a failure of regulation. What Kermit Gosnell was doing was illegal in all 50 states. It was illegal by federal law. And it is people like the anti-choice extremists who are putting roadblock after roadblock, driving reputable doctors out of business, and driving women to the Kermit Gosnells.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is there -- looking at the states again, because I want you to respond on the state issue, the trial aside -- give me an example of what you see happening in a state that you find egregious.
ILYSE HOGUE: Well, I mean where to start, right?
South Carolina, we're not talking about regulations that keep women safe. I agree it's absolutely commonsense and mainstream that women should have safety in their access to abortion care. What we are seeing in South Carolina is that facilities that provide abortion are subject to arbitrary restrictions, like how long the grass is outside the clinic, as though that has anything to do with the care going on inside.
These are backdoor, back-alley efforts to drive clinics out of business, drive women to back-alley providers, and harm them in the end, not keep them safe.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, your response to a specific example like that.
CHARMAINE YOEST: Sure, absolutely.
But this is a really disingenuous argument, because NARAL and NOW and Planned Parenthood never met an abortion restriction that they are willing to support. Every single time you see commonsense solutions being put on the table, they come out and they -- they want to see ...
JEFFREY BROWN: But let me stop ...
CHARMAINE YOEST: They want it's to be completely unrestricted.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
CHARMAINE YOEST: And here is the thing, Jeff, if I can make an analogy.
This isn't a question of access. For example, we could have 20 more restaurants in America. We could have all the restaurants that you wanted if you didn't have the department of public health to oversee and to come in and do inspections. But then would you have a lot more food poisoning.
And that is what you are seeing in the abortion industry today. Yes, we have back-alley abortions, and they are run by big abortion in this country.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is the focus in the states precisely because of a dissatisfaction on your side with what was happening in the courts?
CHARMAINE YOEST: Well, it's this -- what is happening out there in our culture today is a grassroots uprising, where you are seeing a response to a completely out-of-control abortion industry.
Just in the last six months, we have seen two women die in clinics that were legal abortion clinics. And yet there is no oversight being taken care of. And so, as a result you have them -- you know, what other industry do you see that completely has oversight?
For example, in our country today, we have veterinary clinics that are better regulated than abortion clinics.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you are citing public attitudes that support ...
ILYSE HOGUE: Well, no, actually, I'm citing the fact that abortion clinics or medical facilities that provide abortion should and are upheld to the same safety standards as other medical facilities.
What we are seeing -- and this is where it is hard for me to hear Charmaine, with all due respect, use the word common sense. Common sense means a commonly held value by the community; 70 percent of Americans believe that these are decisions that are best made by women, their families, and their doctors.
These are medical decisions, not by politicians or busybodies. I respect Charmaine's decision. I just don't think, like most Americans, that she should be the one to make the laws. These are medical procedures best decided by families and their doctors.
CHARMAINE YOEST: Can I just respond to this? Because I think this is a really important point.
Ilyse is being disingenuous by describing her position, because, Ilyse, I would like it noted for the record that she has just come out and said that she supports clinic regulations that are based on what we expect from other surgical centers.
That's exactly the kind of legislation that just passed in Alabama. And yet there was a firestorm. In Virginia, for example -- in Virginia ...
JEFFREY BROWN: But you were also citing a 12-week -- you were comparing it to other countries. Some of these states do go further than that ...
CHARMAINE YOEST: So, abortion clinics, then, ought to be regulated like other surgical centers and that ...
ILYSE HOGUE: So then we agree.
We believe that women should -- that the facilities that support these procedures should be -- so they are clean, they are safe. What we had in Philadelphia in Gosnell wasn't a problem of regulation. It was a problem of enforcement.
Even the Pennsylvania governor had said it was a problem of enforcement. But what we are seeing Charmaine's group push for are arbitrary restrictions, the width of the hallway. The width of the hallway has no bearing on the medical care that a woman can get, the number of parking spaces, as they are pushing for in Virginia. Of course ...
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you, in a word, both expect that this is going to end up in the courts, back in the courts?
CHARMAINE YOEST: Absolutely. And we are excited about we are seeing in the courts.
For example, we're involved in a case in Oklahoma right now where the -- there is legislation that required the abortion industry to dispense chemical abortion in the manner that it was approved by the FDA. And yet the abortion industry, big abortion, with whom Ilyse is applied, opposed even something that is as commonsensical as that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think we're going ...
ILYSE HOGUE: We are already seeing a number of court cases, including ones that Americans United for Life, I think, support, saying -- that go far beyond Roe, far beyond women's ability to decide about abortion with their doctors.
They are supporting rollbacks of contraception. They actually have model legislation on their website that would limit IVF, as we have seen in the personhood amendment. This is a radical agenda and this is the antithesis of common sense. Americans believe that women and their families and their doctors can make these personal decisions, not meddling politicians.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
CHARMAINE YOEST: That is just a misrepresentation of our opinion. We are working to make sure that there are commonsense regulations that protect women from an industry that preys on their health.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. To be continued, I promise.
ILYSE HOGUE: Thank you, Jeff.
CHARMAINE YOEST: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Charmaine Yoest, Ilyse Hogue, thank you both very much.
ILYSE HOGUE: Thank you.
CHARMAINE YOEST: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: You can hear more of that debate online. Read an opinion piece from both Charmaine Yoest and Ilyse Hogue. That is on our Rundown.