By LINDSEY TANNER
AP Medical Writer
CHICAGO - It's legal to get an abortion in America, but in many places it is hard and getting harder.
Just this year, 17 states set new limits on abortion; 24 did last year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights nonprofit whose numbers are widely respected. In several states with the most restrictive laws, the number of abortions has fallen slightly, pleasing abortion opponents who say the laws are working.
Some of the states with the toughest laws are spread across a big middle swath of the country, stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
In South Dakota, which has just one abortion clinic, lawmakers want to extend the required waiting period from two days to three for women seeking to end a pregnancy. Next door in North Dakota, there's only one clinic. The same is true in Mississippi, where a new law threatens that lone clinic's existence. In several states, doctors now must warn women about purported risks from abortion that most scientists reject.
There are hurdles even in states like Illinois, where abortion laws are more lenient and clinics relatively plentiful.
Patients arriving for abortions at a Granite City, Ill., clinic can expect to find their photographs on an anti-abortion activist's website. And before her abortion in June, a Chicago woman says her own gynecologist refused to offer any advice, fearing that just mentioning abortion could endanger her job at a Catholic hospital.
"The level and scope of activity on abortion and family planning is completely unparalleled to anything we have seen before," said Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher's states issues manager.
"The way people are attacking abortion is distressing because they are getting much more creative the way they're chipping away" at it, said Dr. Renee Mestad, an OB-GYN who provides abortions in upstate New York. Access to abortion isn't much of a problem there. But it was where she used to work in Missouri.
"The ideal thing would be that no one gets pregnant unless they're ready _ that all pregnancies are desired pregnancies, but that's not what happens," Mestad said.
While surveys have consistently shown most Americans support keeping abortion legal in certain circumstances, many people's views are nuanced. A Gallup poll last month found nearly as many voters consider themselves "pro-life" as those who say they are "pro-choice."
And a new Gallup poll released Wednesday found that nearly 40 percent of female registered voters surveyed in 12 swing states consider abortion the most important election issue for women _ even outranking jobs.
President Barack Obama supports access to abortion. GOP challenger Mitt Romney says Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court's nearly 40-year-old decision legalizing abortion, should be overturned, which would allow states to ban abortion.
Anti-abortion attorney Teresa Collett, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, says her ideal would be "to live in a country where abortion is not even really thinkable." She'd like to see Roe vs. Wade overturned, but even if it is, she said, the debate won't end because it would be up to states to ban abortion.
Some seem to be moving in that direction.
_More than 30 new abortion laws have been enacted this year, a record topped only by the unprecedented 92 laws last year.
_Most states _ 41 _ ban abortion after a certain stage of pregnancy, generally around 20 weeks, unless the mother's life or health is in danger. In many of those states, the bans are based on a challenged premise that fetuses that early can feel pain.
_Pre-abortion counseling is required in 35 states; 26 require waiting periods after counseling, and in 13 states, the counseling must warn women about alleged risks from abortion.
States within the nation's most restrictive region, the midsection, include North and South Dakota, which each have only one abortion clinic and have seen the number of abortions drop slightly since 2008.
And they include Texas, which has the most prescriptive counseling laws _ requiring, among other things, that doctors tell women abortion is linked with breast cancer. A group of scientists convened by the National Cancer Institute in 2003 concluded abortion did not raise the risk of breast cancer.
A Texas law passed last year requires women to get an ultrasound and their doctors to describe the fetus. Texas abortions also have dropped every year since 2008.
Next door, in Oklahoma, state authorities are fighting court action blocking a law with similar requirements. Collett, the anti-abortion attorney, has helped Oklahoma defend the 2010 law. She says it might lead some women to change their minds.