Through the first half of the year, there has only been moderate activity around reproductive health issues in state legislatures. In this as in other election years, legislators have been reluctant to address potentially divisive social issues; furthermore, the economic downturn has required legislators to focus on state budgetary issues. With most legislatures already adjourned, it appears that the most significant developments of the year still lie ahead, in the form of ballot initiatives that will come before voters in three states in November. Advocates in two states (South Dakota and Colorado) have secured sufficient signatures to force a vote on measures that take different approaches toward the long-term goal of banning abortion. In California, meanwhile, the electorate will vote for the third time in four years on an initiative to require parental notification prior to a minor’s abortion.

The South Dakota measure would ban most abortions outright. This is the second attempt to ban abortion in South Dakota in the past two years. In 2006, voters defeated an initiative that would have prohibited abortion except in cases of life endangerment. In contrast, the measure before voters this year seeks to ban abortion except in cases of life endangerment, rape and incest and if “there is serious risk of a substantial and irreversible impairment of the functioning of a major bodily organ or system.” As was the case with the 2006 initiative, the purpose of this year’s attempt is to bring a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Abortion opponents in Colorado are taking a more indirect approach to the same long-term goal of banning abortion: A proposed amendment to the state constitution on the ballot this November would define a person throughout Colorado law as a “human being from the moment of fertilization.” By declaring that legal personhood begins at fertilization, the initiative could pave the way for banning common methods of birth control, including oral contraceptives, which may sometimes act postfertilization (although their primary mode of action is to block ovulation).

The third initiative related to reproductive health issues will be yet another attempt to secure approval for a measure to require parental notification when a teen in California seeks an abortion. Similar proposals were presented and soundly defeated in 2005 and 2006. Passage of the California measure would bring to 36 the number of states requiring parental involvement for minors seeking an abortion.

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Major state legislative actions so far this year

State legislation enacted in 2008

The status of state law and policy on key reproductive health and rights issues