Young woman with her physician.
Recent news coverage has focused on the new Roberts Supreme Court and how its decisions might affect abortion -- an issue that has divided the country for decades. Later this month, the Court will take up its first major abortion case in five years: Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
But while the spotlight has been on Washington, there is an equally significant story playing out in local communities. Pro-life advocates have been successfully spearheading campaigns in states throughout the country to pass laws that regulate and limit access to abortion.
According to one abortion provider in the South, who prefers to remain anonymous: "The assault on abortion rights is very clever. It's very smart. And we are losing."
In the summer of 2005 -- more than 30 years after Roe v. Wade established that access to abortion services is a fundamental right -- a FRONTLINE documentary team spent two months traveling across the South where states have been particularly active in passing restrictions on abortion. In interviews with abortion providers and their patients, staff at a pro-life pregnancy counseling center and key legal strategists on both sides of the national debate, FRONTLINE producer Raney Aronson (The Jesus Factor) documents the success of the pro-life movement and the growing number of states with regulations limiting access to abortion.
FRONTLINE tracks how this happened over the past decade -- how it can all be traced back to a critical 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey. While the Court upheld Roe v. Wade, it changed the standard by which abortion laws would be judged. It allowed states to regulate abortion so long as they did not place an "undue burden" on the women seeking the procedure.
"… [E]ver since Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, people got the impression that abortion was safe; Roe v. Wade was safe," explains William Saletan, the author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. "All the pro-choice people went home."
In the years after Casey, the pro-life movement has dramatically changed the landscape of abortion politics. In Mississippi alone, they helped pass 10 laws regulating abortion. And in the last two years, the state has passed legislation on fetal homicide prosecution, new clinic regulations, requirements to report abortion complications, rights of conscience, and a law that would prohibit the state's last abortion clinic from offering abortions beyond the first trimester.
Americans United for Life (AUL), the nation's oldest national pro-life organization, considers Mississippi an example for the nation. "Mississippi has an impressive track record," says AUL senior legal counsel Clarke Forsythe. "Our goal is to see that other states pass the type of legislation that Mississippi has passed over the past decade, and we see a lot of legislative activity."
With an ever-increasing number of state abortion regulations and a steady decline in abortion providers, the procedure, while still legal, has become daunting and expensive in Mississippi and elsewhere. Nationwide, there are now fewer abortion providers in the U.S. than at any time since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 -- 87 percent of U.S. counties don't have one.
"Sometimes I do fantasize about Roe being overturned," admits the abortion clinic owner interviewed by FRONTLINE. "Because then I think that there would be this real threat, this real enemy. Many young women who take all these rights for granted would suddenly realize what they've lost and the consequences of that."
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