Not since the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 has there been a year in which states approved so many abortion restrictions.
Since January, there have been a record 97 new laws limiting abortion enacted in 19 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that supports abortion rights. While a handful of states also enacted laws designed to protect and expand access to abortion and other health care for pregnant women, the state restrictions far outnumbered them.
As a result, the gap between women’s access to abortion in some states as opposed to others has never been wider.
In addition to abortion, legislatures waded into other social issues during this year’s sessions. Republicans in many states pushed bills restricting transgender youth’s access to school sports and medical treatment for gender transition. They also sought to place limits on classroom discussions of systemic racism, vilifying a decades-old body of scholarship known as critical race theory.
Politics drove that rush of legislation, even as lawmakers faced pressing COVID-19 health and budget issues.
Republicans were emboldened in the 23 states where they control the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Other factors include a newly conservative U.S. Supreme Court, GOP backlash over former President Donald Trump’s reelection loss and a tidal wave of social media campaigns and commentary aimed at galvanizing conservatives by playing up divisive cultural issues.
James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said the cultural issues play not only to Republican voters generally, but especially to the GOP conservative base, a much smaller subset who have outsized power in primaries. Lawmakers are aware that these voters hold the key to their elections, he said.
“If talking about cultural issues turns their key, [Republican lawmakers] are going to want to vote on those issues … and claim credit for fighting the fights on issues that are important to those voters,” he said in a phone interview. “Abortions, guns, sexualized issues.
“They are very big overarching issues, critical to these voters,” he said. “Not that they generate overall majority support in the electorate, or that they gin up so-called culture wars—it’s a function of the political,” he said, pointing out that while he is most familiar with Texas politics, the trends apply in other states as well.
There are currently 23 statehouses where Republicans hold the governorship and both houses in the legislature, a “trifecta,” according to Ballotpedia. These are where most of the conservative social issue legislation, including abortion, transgender and critical race theory laws, have been written this year.
There are 15 Democratic trifectas. A few of those states, including Colorado, Hawaii and New Mexico, have enacted laws designed to protect abortion rights if the Supreme Court overturns or significantly weakens Roe v. Wade.
Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to take a case on the constitutionality of a Mississippi law passed in 2018 that largely bars abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. With a new 6-3 conservative majority on the high court, anti-abortion advocates see a chance to change…