Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Reframing The Abortion Debate: Focus On Fetus

Nebraska lawmakers vote April 9 to ban abortion beyond 20 weeks after conception. The law is part of a national trend of state laws restricting abortion.
Nati Harnik
Nebraska lawmakers vote April 9 to ban abortion beyond 20 weeks after conception. The law is part of a national trend of state laws restricting abortion.

More than 350 bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year to restrict abortion. At least two dozen new laws have passed. In many states, the fierce debate over abortion now centers directly on the fetus.

Eighteen states now have laws requiring either that doctors perform ultrasounds before an abortion, or that women be allowed to see one. Some states want to go even further -- getting doctors to describe the fetus to the mother. But Gloria Nesmith of the Feminist Women's Health Center in Atlanta says doing an ultrasound is already routine.

"Historically, I have always offered the woman the opportunity to see -- it's their process. It's their abortion procedure," Nesmith says.

Seeing the image and hearing the fetal heartbeat rarely make women change their minds, she adds.

"I would say the vast majority of the women, they don't want to see or hear anything," Nesmith says. "Maybe a small percentage of the women want to see -- but they don't want to hear. Way less than 1 percent of the women are actually affected in any way."

Changing The Focus Of The Debate

More than a dozen states passed new laws aimed at limiting abortion this year.

Elizabeth Nash is a public policy associate for the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights group that tracks state laws. She says that those who oppose abortion want to reframe the debate.

"What we're seeing now is more of an effort to take the woman out of the considerations of the law and really focus on the fetus," Nash says.

This year, Oklahoma passed what is considered the most far-reaching ultrasound law in the country. It requires doctors to do an ultrasound and provide a detailed description of the fetus -- that includes the dimensions of the embryo and the presence of internal organs.

"It requires that there be a scientifically accurate description of what is being seen, yes," says Mary Spaulding Balch, who works with the National Right to Life Committee.

The Florida Legislature sent a similar bill to Gov. Charlie Crist, who vetoed it. The Midwest, Balch says, has proved the most successful territory for abortion opponents this year.

"I think that the people there see and recognize the life of the unborn child, and think that the state should protect that life," Balch says.

The Guttmacher Institute's Nash argues that the ultrasound laws are invasive and unnecessary.

"Really, this has nothing to do with making sure a woman sees objective and appropriate information, and everything to do with trying to steer her away from abortion," Nash says.

Considering 'Fetal Pain'

Nebraska is pressing the legal boundaries by focusing on what a new law describes as "fetal pain."

The head of Nebraska Right to Life, Julie Schmit-Albin, walked the halls of the Capitol in Lincoln all year garnering support for a law that bans most abortions beyond 20 weeks after conception.

"I call it the perfect storm, because our opponents in the abortion industry didn't see it coming," Schmit-Albin says.

Activists across the country are closely watching what happens, she adds.

"The significance of the new law is that it creates another standard, a standard based on an unborn child at least 20 weeks, being able to feel pain," Schmit-Albin says.

Continuing Battles

States can ban abortion after viability, but that's generally considered to be 24 to 26 weeks, and the decision is usually left to the doctor. Abortion rights groups oppose the law and question the scientific evidence on fetal pain. Some, like Nebraska state Sen. Ken Haar, suggest that the law is really about something else.

"Pure emotion, yes," says Haar, a Democrat.

He's one of just five Nebraska legislators who voted against the bill.

"Now, trying to institute a new standard, you know, a new bright line for abortion, it doesn't make sense," says Haar. "It's obvious to me that the Right to Life group in Nebraska is trying to outlaw abortion. Period."

The national heath care debate highlighted the abortion issue this year, and many observers say that gave state legislators new momentum to pass their own measures. But several of the new laws will face legal battles, including Oklahoma's ultrasound regulation. A challenge to Nebraska's fetal pain ban is also expected later this year.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.