May 13, 2015 / 5:20 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. women face harder path to abortion as states extend waiting periods

TAMPA, Fla./GREENSBORO, N.C. (Reuters) - Lawmakers in North Carolina, one of several states looking to mandate lengthier and stricter delays for abortions, are hearing pushback as they say forcing women to wait 72 hours is not too great an imposition.

Hannah Osborne, a community organizer for NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, speaks at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, May 6, 2015. REUTERS/Colleen Jenkins

Kelsea McLain, for one, believes it would have made her choice to terminate a pregnancy more painful. “Every moment I was pregnant past when I made that decision was torture,” said the 30-year-old administrative assistant in Chapel Hill.

Similar abortion debates have played out in five Republican-controlled statehouses in recent weeks, as legislators from Florida to Arkansas enacted new waiting-period laws or appeared poised to do so. Oklahoma last week adopted a law tripling its wait time to 72 hours, among the longest in the country.

The push for more restrictive waiting periods comes amid a wave of anti-abortion laws passed by conservative lawmakers over the past few years seeking to chip away at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade.

Advocates for women having the right to decide whether to end a pregnancy are considering legal challenges to what can be multiday waiting periods, with some states also requiring two clinic visits to get an abortion.

The U.S. Supreme Court has previously upheld the general concept of mandatory waits, supporters of the movement note.

“Abortion is a grave choice. It is a permanent decision,” said Mailee Smith, staff counsel for Americans United for Life, which encouraged strict waiting periods in model legislation proposed in at least 15 states, including those advancing the concept.

She said the goal was to bolster the waiting-period laws that were already on the books in some two dozen states, including several of those now adding an extra day or two of mandated delay.

“The concern is women having enough time to look at the information,” she added.

Critics of such waits say they serve no medical purpose. At a rally this month in Greensboro, North Carolina, opponents of the state’s proposed longer wait wore purple T-shirts that read “Politicians Make Crappy Doctors.”

“These bills are preying on the idea that women should have a bit of shame about what they are doing,” said Brook Hines, 48, of Orlando, Florida, who had an abortion in the late ‘80s while in college. “It’s very paternalistic, it’s very condescending.”

LONGER WAITS, FEWER CLINICS

Half of the 12 Southern states now have five or fewer abortion clinics, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Carolina all have three or fewer.

In some cases, women from these states have resorted to traveling long distances to seek an abortion in Florida, where the legislature recently passed a bill requiring them to make two doctors’ visits to get an abortion, with a 24-hour wait.

“It will be an additional barrier to those in an already difficult situation, making it even worse,” said Dr. Christopher Estes, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida.

Longer drives and scheduling difficulties resulted when South Dakota in 2011 passed the nation’s first 72-hour waiting period, said Jennifer Aulwes, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood there.

She recalled one woman who could not take two days off from work in the same week for in-person visits to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls and ultimately had to drive eight hours round-trip to Minnesota to get an abortion.

Eleven states require counseling before abortion procedures to take place in person - meaning a woman must make at least two trips to the abortion clinic, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive policy.

Research suggests that approach is more likely to discourage women than a forced wait.

Texas, for instance, had no decrease in early abortions from a 2004 law requiring a 24-hour wait that could begin remotely, said Ted Joyce, a professor specializing in reproductive health economics at Baruch College at the City University of New York.

By contrast, abortions dropped off 10 percent in Mississippi following a 1992 law combining a similar waiting period with a two-visit requirement, he said.

The three-day waits made law in Oklahoma and recently passed by the House of Representatives in North Carolina do not require more than one trip to a clinic, while the 48-hour waits approved in Arkansas and Tennessee call for two trips.

However, the waiting period combined with other new abortion restrictions in Arkansas require women to make four separate visits to get a medication or nonsurgical abortion, commonly performed in early pregnancy.

“This doesn’t stop an abortion,” said Mary Spaulding Balch, director of the National Right to Life Committee’s state legislation department. “This just gives the mother time to reflect.”

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