The Impact Governors Have on the Abortion Laws in Their States

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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images

Although legalized since the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, abortion is far from a settled issue in the United States. While the topic pops up on the national level as a rallying cry during presidential debates and campaigns, the real action takes place on the state level.

In 2010, Republicans up and down the ballot across the U.S. won in droves — making 2011 their first year of legislative action since being elected. From 2011 to 2014, states enacted 231 abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Coincidence? HealthGrove looked at data on abortion access and the ideology of each state’s governor to see if there was a connection between a state’s political leaning and its access to abortion providers.

This map, using 2011 data from the Guttmacher Institute, shows how states differ in terms of access to abortion. Typically, states in the South and Midwest have more restrictions on the books than states in the Northeast and West.

In 22 states, at least 50 percent of women live in a county without an abortion provider. Of those 22 states, 17 have Republican governors — and most of those leaders are among the more conservative in the country. Using data from OnTheIssues, we get some insight into each state’s political leaning. That group scores politicians’ ideology on a scale of -10 to 10, where negative scores are more liberal and positive scores are more conservative.

Take Wyoming, where 4 percent of women live in a county with an abortion provider. That state is very rural, and has the lowest population in the U.S., which could contribute to such a low percentage. But Republican Gov. Matt Mead has also been a strong opponent since he first ran for statewide office in 2010. Although by no means the most conservative in the country, Mead does score as more conservative than the average GOP governor.

A recent Bloomberg article pointed out that Wyoming is one of four states with just one abortion clinic. The other three? Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota. All of those states have fairly conservative Republican governors.

In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant has worked to limit abortion rights in his state. During his State of the State address in January 2014, he said, “My goal is to end abortion in Mississippi.” By April of that year, Bryant signed legislation banning abortion at 20 weeks.

Data shows that as of 2011, 27 percent of women in North Dakota live in a county with abortion access. But in March 2013, Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed one of the strictest abortion mandates in the country, prohibiting abortions at six weeks. A federal appeals court ultimately struck down the law in July 2015.

And in nearby South Dakota, only two months after his inauguration in 2011, Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill that required a 72-hour waiting period and counseling at a “pregnancy help center” before a woman could get an abortion. Two years later, he signed a bill that excluded weekends and holidays from that 72-hour window.

On the other side of the issue, of the states with the most access to abortion clinics, seven of the top 10 have more liberal governors. Guttmacher data shows that all women in Hawaii have access to an abortion provider, while in California — a much larger, more populous state — 99 percent of women live in a county with access to a provider. The Democratic governors in both states, Gov. David Ige and Gov. Jerry Brown, respectively, are among the more left-leaning in the country.

Though it's true that most states with a more conservative governor in office have more restrictions when it comes to abortion access, notable exceptions do exist. In Arizona, for example, 86 percent of women live in a county with an abortion provider, but Gov. Doug Ducey is a conservative Republican. Even in more urban states with a moderate Republican governor, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, women have better access to abortion providers.

Research More About Reproductive Health Issues

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