In Missouri and Indiana, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate lost races that their party initially expected to win after making widely criticized comments regarding abortion rights for impregnated rape victims. In Virginia, protests combined with mockery on late-night TV shows prompted GOP politicians to scale back a bill that would have required women seeking abortions to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound.
"All these things got Americans angry and got them to realize just how extreme the other side is," said Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project.
"This issue will remain very divisive," she said. "But I do see this as a sea-change moment... The American public wants abortion to remain safe, legal and accessible."
However, anti-abortion leaders insist they have reason for optimism, particularly at the state level.
In the past two years, following Republican election gains in 2010, GOP-dominated state legislatures have passed more than 130 bills intended to reduce access to abortion. The measures include mandatory counseling and ultrasound for women seeking abortions, bans on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, curbs on how insurers cover the procedure, and new regulations for abortion clinics.
The ACLU and other abortion-rights groups are challenging several of the laws in court, notably the 20-week ban. Yet already this year, Republican leaders in Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere are talking about new legislative efforts to restrict abortion.
Mississippi's Gov. Phil Bryant says he wants to end abortion in the state and is eager for the remaining clinic, the Jackson Women's Health Organization, to close.
"My goal, of course, is to shut it down," Bryant told reporters on Jan. 10. "If I had the power to do so legally, I'd do so tomorrow."
The clinic is a steady target of anti-abortion protesters who take turns praying, singing hymns and confronting patients. Its administrator, Diane Derzis, says the three principal physicians on her staff have been unable to get admitting privileges at area hospitals due to pressure from the anti-abortion movement.
Such developments hearten Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, one of the groups most active in proposing anti-abortion bills for state legislatures to consider.
"Within the context of Roe, we have been remarkably successful in terms of expanding the legal protection of human life," Yoest said. "We're working to make Roe irrelevant."
Yoest's optimism derives partly from her belief that young Americans are increasingly skeptical about abortion, though polls give mixed verdicts on this matter.
"It is really easy to explain the pro-life position to a child — it's hard to explain to them why you should kill a baby before it's born," Yoest said.
Supporters of legal access to abortion dispute the notion of swelling anti-abortion sentiment among young people, but some activists do sense a gap in terms of political intensity.
"I have enormous hope in this millennial generation — they're progressive, thoughtful and they identify in their pro-choice values," said Nancy Keenan, who will soon be stepping down after eight years as president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"But there is an intensity gap — they don't act on those values," Keenan said. "The other side votes their anti-choice, pro-life values — it's at the top of their political activity."
She drew a contrast with the push for same-sex marriage.
"With marriage equality, gays and lesbians are fighting for something they didn't have," Keenan said. "In the case of reproductive rights, you're trying to maintain the status quo. The millennial generation doesn't see it as threatened."
Another difference: the campaign for same-sex marriage has benefited greatly from personal testimony by gay couples, speaking out in legislative hearings and campaign videos. By contrast, although millions of American women have had abortions, relatively few speak out publicly to defend their decisions.
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