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Anti-abortion efforts in states hit obstacle of own making

File image of Leader of former Rep. Henry Hyde speaking with members of the press in Washington
File image of Leader of former Rep. Henry Hyde speaking with members of the press in Washington

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Henry Hyde, a champion of the anti-abortion movement, might turn over in his grave if he knew that a provision of law he authored was an obstacle to individual states banning abortion.

The Hyde Amendment, named for the Illinois Republican who served in Congress for 32 years and died in 2007, initially barred the use of certain federal funds, namely Medicaid health insurance for the poor, to pay for abortion.

But the provision, which has been attached to U.S. spending bills since 1976, was changed in 1977 to allow exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.

In a strange twist of fate, the Hyde Amendment -- whose purpose was to deny federal funding for abortions -- has become a stumbling block in efforts to stop abortions altogether, said Keith Mason, founder and president of the anti-abortion group Personhood USA.

"A compromise in legislation that was part of the pro-life movement is the very hurdle that we have to overcome," he told Reuters.

This week lawmakers in Louisiana's state House effectively killed a bill that would have banned abortion outright. The author of that failed bill said lawmakers were put off by a state fiscal analysis that showed that $4.5 billion in federal funds could be at risk if the state criminalizes rape- and incest-related abortion, putting state law out of compliance with Hyde.

"The Hyde Amendment, or rather the exception to the amendment, is our primary obstacle right now," Louisiana State Representative John LaBruzzo, who sponsored the bill, told Reuters.

Since Republicans swept to victory nationwide in the midterm elections last year, states with Republican legislative majorities have been chipping away at abortion rights.

So far this year four states have banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, joining Nebraska which did the same before the election. Alabama could soon make it six states after its legislature this week approved such a law and sent it to a Republican governor for signature.

Some other states have moved to deny funding to organizations's offering abortions such as Planned Parenthood. Indiana did this and the legality of the measure is now before the courts.

Iowa has considered passing a law barring an abortion clinic in Nebraska from setting up business across the state line in Iowa to flee the tighter law in Nebraska.

But none of these efforts fundamentally challenges the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973 that made abortion legal in the United States.

The Louisiana law derailed by the Hyde provision, would have been a direct attack on Roe v. Wade.

"Clearly, (a state) banning abortion would set up a challenge to Roe v. Wade," said Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate with the Guttmacher Institute in Washington, D.C., which conducts research and policy analysis related to reproductive health.

Louisiana is not the only state to consider so-called "personhood" laws that would define life as beginning at conception, in effect banning abortion.

In Alabama, a bill that would have redefined the word "person" in the state's legal code failed to reach a final vote on the last day of the state's legislative session. The bill stipulated that human life begins at the moment a woman's egg is fertilized and its primary aim was to ban abortion.

And the Mississippi Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday about whether to allow an abortion-related measure on a November ballot. The initiative would redefine "person" in the state constitution as beginning at fertilization.

Advocates of a ban on abortion plan to try again in Louisiana and other states.

Personhood USA's Mason said every state vote on abortion has the potential to enlarge the anti-abortion movement. "We see we have the ability to change the opinions of the electorate by bringing it up again and again," he said. "This debate is not going away."

But Jordan Goldberg, state advocacy counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, called the "personhood" efforts "really extreme measures."

"The reason these legislative efforts are not being successful is because banning abortion is a bad idea - it's bad for women, it's bad public policy and it's unconstitutional," she said.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)

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