When the Tea Party movement led to a Republican landslide in 2010, giving the GOP control of the majority of governorships and state legislatures, it seemed inevitable that the newly empowered Republicans would concentrate on economic issues. Instead, state-level legislation has been dominated by abortion.
According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, 205 new abortion restrictions have been passed since 2011, compared to only 189 in the whole decade before that. In addition to typical abortion roadblocks such as parental-consent laws and requiring women to get an ultrasound image of the womb, several states moved to tighten the laws on how and where abortions can be performed. In North Carolina, formerly a Democratic state, the new Republican legislature required abortion clinics to meet the standards of an outpatient surgical centre, causing all of the state’s remaining abortion centres to shut down. Critics argue that these standards, passed in many states and awaiting review by the Supreme Court, are less about health and more about requiring clinics to make expensive renovations or close. So important is the abortion issue to state legislators that the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, called a special legislative session to pass an abortion-restriction bill after facing a filibuster from a Democrat opponent last year.
Why has abortion become the number 1 topic at a time, and to a group of people, that were thought to be all about taxes and spending? Partly, it has to do with timing. The Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in the partial-birth abortion case Gonzales v. Carhart upheld a federal ban on a specific kind of late-term abortion procedure, and was seen by many as a significant reversal of abortion rights. The Kermit Gosnell case, meanwhile, has given ammunition to those who argue for more stringent regulation of clinics. The Philadelphia abortion doctor was found guilty last year of murdering three babies in botched late-term abortions.
But the biggest factor may simply be the importance of religiously oriented conservatism to the Tea Party faithful, and the rise of a new, more true-believing type of Republican. In Kansas, always a mostly Republican state, the Tea Party revolts of 2010 replaced more business-oriented conservatism with a more religious breed of Republican, and elected a new governor, Sam Brownback, a conservative Catholic eager to sign any and all curbs on abortion into law.
Though the Republican legislatures have also passed their share of laws on issues such as gun control (against) and unions (also against), abortion may turn out to be the real legacy of the Tea Party revolution. And in what the conservative Washington Times called “an unprecedented show of opposition to abortion,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus announced that he would delay the party’s winter meeting to allow members to attend the anti-Roe v. Wade March for Life on Jan. 22.
With Republicans likely to make more gains at the state and federal level in this year’s midterm elections, abortion may become the issue by which all office-holders are judged. They can’t do much about repealing Obamacare, and the federal deficit appears to be shrinking without their help, but Tea Party voters can expect their representatives to make it harder to obtain an abortion.