« Return to this article

Know the West

Western states work to shore up abortion access

‘State laws might become the law of the land.’


A volunteer with NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada huddles with legislators on the floor of the state capitol in early May.
Liliana Trejo Vanegas/NARAL Nevada

On May 21, roughly 70 supporters braved snow, rain and hail before they walked into the state capitol in Carson City, Nevada, to watch the nation’s first majority-women state legislature pass Senate Bill 179. Better known as the Trust Nevada Women Act, it stood in stark contrast to the abortion restrictions being proposed across the country.

The bill, which ultimately passed 27-13, eliminated criminal penalties against women who sought an abortion. In early May, Georgia’s governor signed a law banning abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. Shortly after, Alabama passed one of the nation’s strictest abortion laws, criminalizing abortion even in the case of rape and incest. And Missouri is set to become the first state without an abortion clinic.

According to Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto her state of Nevada stands out as abortion policies in red states move further right. “We will continue to be a beacon of hope and safety for women in this country,” Cortez Masto said in a written statement to High Country News.

While no one was charged for terminating a pregnancy under the old statute, the new bill is a preemptive measure against the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, according to Caroline Mello Roberson, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada. “State laws might become the law of the land,” she said.

Nevada Right to Life opposed the bill, saying it would put women’s lives at risk by softening penalties against non-doctors who perform abortions. But the biggest concern for Melissa Clement, executive director of Nevada Right to Life, is the removal of a statute requiring a doctor ask the age of a patient.

“Who does that help? It doesn’t help women, and it doesn’t help children,” Clement said. By removing the mandatory age reporting, the new bill would benefit abusers and predators, she said.

This is the most liberal abortion bill Clement has seen in Nevada. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the change in the Supreme Court,” she said, referencing the strong conservative majority with the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Nevada State Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D, sponsor of the Trust Nevada Women Act, speaks with NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada volunteers in May.
Liliana Trejo Vanegas/NARAL Nevada

Roberson said she’s also seen similar “clean-up bills,” popping up throughout the country in the past year, especially in the West. The bills aim to wipe out any preexisting state law which would take effect if the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision was ever overturned. Although the results have not always been successful.

New Mexico voted in March to uphold a 1969 law which criminalized a medical provider from terminating a pregnancy except in the case of rape, incest or threats to the woman’s physical health.

For states that lack a legislative majority in support of less restrictions, activists are left to search for alternative measures. In Arizona, a Republican governor and pro-life majority in the state legislature have created a state with one of the most restrictive limits to abortions, according to Tayler Tucker, media relations manager at Planned Parenthood Arizona.

“When you have a governor who’s willing to sign any law that’s anti-abortion and a Republican majority that’s willing to fall in line, there’s very little we can do to pass legislation like a state like New York,” said Tucker.

In April, Planned Parenthood Arizona filed a lawsuit against the state of Arizona alleging its laws unnecessarily restricted access to abortions and left rural areas without abortion services.

“Access to abortion is a fundamental right, yet Arizona’s restrictive laws make it increasingly inaccessible for millions of women - particularly for low-income, women of color,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., in a written statement.

States with a Republican majority are not the only ones seeing a rise in bills designed to curtail abortion access. Colorado’s Democratic-controlled state legislature rejected a bill in January that would have been more restrictive than Alabama’s. In part, the proposal would have defined the start of human life at fertilization.

But in Arizona, activists are wary of laws and policies that chip away at a woman’s access to reproductive health services.

“It’s very easy to not pay attention to these little, small movements that dwindle access and cut funding,” Tucker said. “It’s a slow, mundane process that has gotten us to this point.”

Liz Weber is an editorial intern working in Washington, D.C., for High Country News and a student at American University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.