Changing times

Abortion returns to political arena

At the Nevada Legislature, lawmakers will be asked to clear the statutes of anti-abortion language.

At the Nevada Legislature, lawmakers will be asked to clear the statutes of anti-abortion language.


The Democratic election upswing has brought the abortion issue back to the front burner, with attorneys general around the country trying to block Trump actions and, closer to home, the Nevada Legislature considering removal of anti-abortion language from state statutes.

This reverses the trend after strong Republican gains in the 2014 election, which was followed by a sharp rise in state laws enacted to restrict abortions.

At the state level, Clark County Sen. Yvanna Cancela on Feb. 18 introduced Senate Bill 179, which seeks to remove several provisions in Nevada law.

For many years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade, which made abortion legal, the conventional political wisdom in Nevada was that an anti-abortion posture was popular in the state. That assumption led to state legislators enacting measures that sought to restrict the procedure. Over the years as the courts kept upholding abortion rights, the strategy of abortion opponents became enactment of measures that made abortions more administratively difficult to obtain or that made the procedure appear ugly.

One of them, enacted in Nevada in 1985, is still on the state’s law books but has never been implemented. It was sponsored by Washoe County Sen. Maurice Washington in 1985 and provided for parental notification. It passed the Nevada Senate on an 18-3 vote and the Assembly 33-8. But it was quickly enjoined by the courts in Glick vs. McKay and has not been enforced.

Another section of Nevada law requires physicians to verbally tell a pregnant woman the procedure to be used and the post-procedure care she would need, plus “the discomforts and risks” that may accompany or follow the procedure, and the stage of pregnancy the woman is at. The law also requires physicians to “certify a pregnant woman’s marital status and age” and have the patient sign a consent form. Many of these provisions were intended by abortion opponents to make the process of obtaining an abortion more emotionally trying.

Still another law makes it a crime for a woman to try to self-induce an abortion without medical assistance.

In 1990, Nevada women’s rights leaders circulated a referendum petition which placed the state’s Roe-style abortion law on the ballot for a vote of approval or disapproval. It was a high-risk gamble that was not supported by national women’s rights organizations, who recalled that Nevadans had voted down the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1978 election. But the ballot campaign had the advantage of giving voters a chance not to change the law but simply confirm the status quo of legal abortion. The Nevada law was easily approved in the referendum, 63 to 37 percent.

Under Nevada’s ballot petition provisions, a law approved by the public cannot be changed except by another vote of the public. However, the 1990 referendum put only the basic abortion law—Nevada Revised Statute 442.250—on the ballot. The later measures that sought to hamper abortions, such as parental consent and physician lectures, were not voted on, so they can be repealed by the legislature with simple majority votes.

Cancela’s bill would remove the ancillary abortion restrictions without changing the basic N.R.S. 442.250.


At the federal level, there is a dispute over the global gag rule, sometimes called the “Mexico City policy.” It requires foreign organizations to certify that they will not perform or promote abortions, and U.S. funding is withheld if they fail to do so. The policy regulates not just what physicians and others can do but what they can say, putting obstacles between women and their physicians.

The policy was first imposed by President Reagan in 1984 and has been revoked by every Democratic president and revived by every Republican president since. Donald Trump, an abortion supporter until he ran for president, put it back in place in 2017. But he has gone beyond that, directing cabinet members to look at issuing orders on religious objections to abortion, proposing removal of coverage of abortion under the Affordable Care Act, and extending the global gag order to the United States in a “domestic gag order.”

In 2017, Trump cut off funding for the United Nations Population Fund, a planet-wide provider of family planning and contraception to women. The New York Times reported then that health advocacy said the Fund’s U.S. funding in 2016 had “prevented an estimated 320,000 pregnancies and averted 100,000 unsafe abortions, while ensuring 800,000 people had access to contraception.” As a further result of that cutoff, women around the world were prevented from using a powerful new HIV drug, dolutegravir, although men’s access to it is unrestricted.

In May 2018, as part of extending the gag rule to domestic purposes, Trump circulated a proposed “domestic gag rule” draft around Title X, the U.S. affordable birth control program, in an effort to cut off millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood health centers. It would block health care providers receiving Title X funding from discussing abortion or referring patients for the procedure.

Jacky Rosen of Nevada, then campaigning for the U.S. Senate, said in a prepared statement, “The Trump Administration’s dangerous new rule is a blatant effort to defund Planned Parenthood. … This domestic gag rule threatens to leave thousands of Nevadans who count on Planned Parenthood health centers without access to care.”

Rosen, now senator from Nevada, has signed onto H.R. 671, which seeks to reverse the global gag rule and opposes Trump’s domestic version.

Her Nevada colleague in the Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto, also attacked the Title X changes that she said “make it significantly harder for women across the country to get the health care they need.” Both are expected to oppose any domestic extension of the gag rule that would interfere with doctor/patient relationship in the United States. That Title X rule was made final last week, on Feb. 22, further inflaming the abortion issue.

A number of state attorneys general have headed to court to try to stop Trump’s efforts.

New Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford—who used the abortion issue against his Republican opponent in last year’s election—has joined a coalition of state AGs in filing amicus briefs asking the courts to stop Trump administration actions lifting ACA contraception coverage. The briefs were filed in Pennsylvania and California cases.

On Feb. 26, Sisolak joined a letter by U.S. governors condemning any “domestic gag rule.”