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The sight of Planned Parenthood’s top official turning on the charm in Austin, Texas, says everything about one of the year’s most extraordinary developments. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and daughter of the late Gov. Ann Richards, was in town to lobby Texas legislators to preserve the group’s access to state money. When you’re defending your home turf and facing a shutout, your team is in trouble.

But Planned Parenthood, subject of so many recent news stories about federal spending cuts, isn’t the real focus of this struggle. It’s the entire social and legal regime erected 38 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court when it legalized abortion on request. While official Washington occupies itself with soaring deficits, health care costs and the status of the war on terror, state lawmakers have been busy passing law after law challenging one or more core holdings of the high court’s landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade.

It’s a stunning development. Just six months ago, the settled view was that Americans were putting social issues on the back burner. Deficit spending and the national debt were said to be the lone priority of the tea party movement and the millions of voters it activated in the 2010 elections. As a New York Times headline in March 2010 put it: “Tea Party Avoids Divisive Social Issues.”

Some avoidance. Since the beginning of this year, according to a count published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, state legislatures have introduced nearly 500 pro-life measures. Most alarming to the institute and its allies, an unprecedented number of such measures are being passed, many by wide margins, and made law.

Consider these events in the span of one week: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law a bill limiting near-viability abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy except when the life or health of the mother is in serious danger. It also bars federal money from flowing to Planned Parenthood in Indiana because of the organization’s involvement in abortion. In Texas and Florida, Govs. Rick Perry and Rick Scott, respectively, announced they would sign bills to require abortion doctors to give women access to ultrasound images of their developing babies.

In Ohio, a majority of the House co-sponsored a bill that would require an abortion doctor to search for a fetal heartbeat, which typically is present within weeks of a pregnancy. If the doctor detects a heartbeat, he must inform the mother and cannot proceed with an elective abortion.

Earlier this year, in Arizona, legislators passed two bills that bar doctors from performing an abortion motivated by considerations of gender (boys typically are preferred) or race. Legislators were presented evidence that “sex selection” abortions have begun to occur in U.S. population groups. A cover story last year in The Economist put the number of “missing girls” worldwide at 100 million.

The list goes on. At least seven states have passed legislation to block insurance coverage for elective abortions as part of the nation’s new health care law. Nebraska and Kansas enacted measures prohibiting abortions when the unborn child is capable of feeling pain — thus ending the two states’ history as havens for late-term abortions. Lawmakers across the country also are adopting resolutions praising pro-life help centers for pregnant women and authorizing “Choose Life” license plates.

As a legal phenomenon, court challenges loom and the impact of the new laws remains to be seen. As a cultural matter, though, the impact is much clearer. Nearly four decades after Roe v. Wade opened the floodgates to elective abortion — and despite repeated attempts by the courts to buttress that historic ruling — the core proposition behind it has not persuaded millions of Americans.

No other Supreme Court ruling in the modern era has proved remotely as controversial. Americans may not wish to outlaw all abortions. And they surely agree the object of public policy should be to support, not punish, expectant mothers. But Americans also know the situation today is out of balance.

Leaving women to the tender mercies of abortion providers is unacceptable. So too is the towering abortion empire that Planned Parenthood has become, subsidized with taxpayers’ dollars.

The nation is seeking a “new normal” with respect to mothers and the unborn. The news is that the pace of change is so swift.

Charles A. Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

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