More than forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that secured a woman’s right to abortion. Since then, extremist politicians have been trying to take that decision out of a woman’s hands. Heading into this week’s midterm elections, the trend of anti-choice legislation continues, as three states — Tennessee, North Dakota and Colorado — face sweeping ballot measures that would eliminate the right to abortion under their state constitutions and, in some cases, criminalize the procedure.
Here’s what you should know about those three measures, and about the state of reproductive rights nationwide:
Tennessee: Constitutional Amendment 1
The Tennessee measure, known as Amendment 1, would declare that Tennessee’s constitution does not protect women’s right to have to an abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. The measure would effectively overrule a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court decision that struck down a 36-hour mandatory waiting period before abortion, citing women’s right to privacy under the state constitution. The Amendment would prevent such Supreme Court reversals from happening in the future, clearing the way for far-right forces in the state to pass severe anti-abortion legislation, styled after that in other southern states including Texas and Alabama.
“Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion,” the measure says. “The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”
Tennessee was recently named one of 27 states “hostile” to abortion by the Guttmacher Institute. The state already has several abortion restrictions on the books, including a requirement that doctors have admitting privileges at a local hospital. But the amendment would open the door for lawmakers to pass new anti-abortion laws without having to worry about being blocked by the courts. “If Amendment 1 passes, anti-abortion politicians are poised to pass the same draconian laws and regulations that have forced facilities providing abortion to close in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia,” states Planned Parenthood.
The “Yes on 1” campaign, run by Tennessee Right to Life, claims that the measure would not ban abortion, citing the provision in Roe. v. Wade that women have a right to legal abortion until the fetus is viable, around 22 to 24 weeks. But Roe v. Wade has not stopped other states from passing bans on abortions earlier than 22 weeks, in addition to other restrictions that shut down abortion clinics and make it nearly impossible for women to access the procedure.
All four of Tennessee’s major newspapers—the Tennessean, Knoxville News Sentinel, Chattanooga Times, and Commercial Appeal—have published op-eds denouncing the proposed amendment. “Making any type of law immune from a court challenge is shortsighted, prejudicial – and in the case of what should be a woman’s own decision about her health – downright dangerous,” wrote the Tennessean editorial board. Numerous faith leaders, student activists, and medical providers also oppose the proposed change.
Right now, it looks like the measure has a good chance of passing. Recent polling shows that more Tennessee voters support the measure than oppose it, although it’s still too close to call.
Colorado: Amendment 67
By granting “personhood” to a fetus, Colorado’s Amendment 67 would outlaw all abortion in the state, including in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the pregnant woman’s health. It would also ban certain kinds of emergency contraceptives and birth control methods by granting legal personhood rights to zygotes from the moment of fertilization.
Colorado voters have rejected personhood measures before, so anti-abortion activists found a new way this year to frame the question: Amendment 67 would include fetuses in the definition of “human” and “child” under the state’s criminal code. “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution protecting pregnant women and unborn children by defining ‘person’ and ‘child’ in the Colorado criminal code and the Colorado wrongful death act to include unborn human beings?” the question asks.
Supporters of the initiative have tied the measure to the story of a pregnant woman who was struck by a drunk driver in 2008, claiming that this amendment would make the crime a fetal homicide. However, leading medical organizations and women’s health advocates say the measure would also criminalize pregnant women, making abortion a first-degree murder under state law. Because the mandate to extend personhood to “unborn human beings” is so vaguely defined, there is also concern that it could prompt investigations of miscarriages.
Opponents of the bill also point out that the language of the amendment is misleading, as it implies the legislation is designed to protect pregnant women, when actually it would undoubtedly harm them by restricting — or entirely cutting off — their right to choose and reducing access to critical medical treatment. Furthermore, restrictions on birth control would lead to higher rates of unintended pregnancy and, subsequently, increased
The “Vote No on 67” coalition includes doctors, nurses and other health care advocates and providers, as well as groups organizing against domestic violence and sexual assault, and leaders in faith and civil rights communities. Organizations include Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights.
North Dakota: Constitutional Measure 1
North Dakota’s personhood measure is a more straightforward ban on abortion, and out of the three measures, it is the most likely to pass. Measure 1 would “create and enact a new section to Article I of the North Dakota Constitution stating, ‘The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.'”
Not only would this measure amend the state’s constitution to eradicate abortion rights, but it would also threaten a broad range of health care services, ranging from birth control and pregnancy-related care to infertility treatments and end-of-life care (similar to Colorado’s proposed Amendment 67). The legislation, if passed, would be the most extreme anti-abortion measure in the country; it would make North Dakota the first state in the nation to enact such a sweeping “personhood” change to its constitution, following decades of campaigning from anti-choice groups to pass similar laws. The push for the measure follows severe restrictions passed in North Dakota last year, one of which has since been overturned in federal court.
Anti-abortion activists supporting the measure — including national anti-choice groups Personhood USA and the Family Research Council, known for launching similar personhood efforts elsewhere in the country — claim their intent is not to ban abortion; however, that’s exactly what the legislation would do. Furthermore, as Nina Martin recently explained for ProPublica, anti-abortion activists made clear their intentions when they first proposed the dangerous personhood legislation:
From the start, Measure 1 was aimed squarely at ending abortion. “I’m hoping it will be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade,” the amendment’s chief sponsor in the North Dakota legislature declared last year. Leaders of the burgeoning personhood movement—who believe that establishing legal rights for the unborn is the key to overturning that 1973 decision and ending the right to abortion—have made Measure 1’s passage a national priority.
Yet as the closely watched campaign over Measure 1 enters its final hours, what’s most striking is that almost no one advocating for or against it is talking about ending abortion anymore.
The measure’s supporters, including the Republican state senator who introduced it, now claim that it is little more than an effort to shore up the state’s existing restrictions on when and how women can end their pregnancies.
Opponents of the measure, which include the North Dakota Coalition of Privacy in Health, Parents Against Personhood, and North Dakotans Against Measure 1, as well as national reproductive rights groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, as well as leading medical organizations including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) is unequivocally opposed to the so-called “personhood” laws or amendments being considered in several states,” the group said in a statement. “These measures erode women’s basic rights to privacy and bodily integrity; deny women access to the full spectrum of preventive health care including contraception; and undermine the doctor-patient relationship. ACOG firmly believes that science must be at the core of public health policies and medical decision-making that affect the health and life of women.”
Indeed, the North Dakota Coalition of Privacy in Health, one of the strongest opponents of the measure, has warned that the law could result in devastating consequences with far-reaching effects across all areas of health care:
“Many forms of birth control could be banned, causing more unintended pregnancies. Already, 40% of pregnancies are unintended.”
“A woman who miscarries may be subject to criminal charges of homicide, manslaughter or reckless endangerment since the nature of the pregnancy loss could be questioned.”
“Because the amendment requires the protection of life at any stage, it may impact end-of-life care. It could nullify living wills and advance directives that instruct caregivers to stop life support. Prolonging life support beyond a desired point would be costly to families and affect organ donation.”
“This law could make it difficult for doctors to help women with life-threatening ectopic pregnancies and incomplete miscarriages because they may be compelled to treat embryos and women equally.”
“Couples who want to bring new life into the world could be devastated by this anti-family legislation. A personhood law could ban in vitro fertilization (IVF) and affect families who are storing frozen embryos.”
Nationwide threat to reproductive rights
According to a recent nationwide Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, seven in ten Americans support the constitutional rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade; the same proportion of Americans also agreed that women’s legal right to access abortion should be protected in a recent NARAL Pro-Choice America survey. But this majority is startlingly underrepresented in Congress, where only four in ten elected officials share Americans’ pro-choice values. The Republicans who control the House have amply demonstrated that restricting a woman’s right to decide when and how she has a family is a top priority. Their counterparts in the Senate share these goals.
On Tuesday, control of the Senate will be in your hands. The elections are going to come down to the wire, so your vote will matter big time. Even if you don’t live in one of the three states with ballot measures threatening your constitutional right to abortion, the elected officials you vote into office will determine the future of such matters at both the state and national levels.
The only reason we haven’t seen extreme anti-choice measures, like the three described above, put in place nationwide is because the Senate firewall worked exactly as it should—reflecting the will of mainstream Americans by refusing to allow the ideology of a few to be imposed on the many. But if anti-choice Republicans win enough seats on November 4 to take control of the Senate, women will face the possibility of very different treatment under the law. After all, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, who would become majority leader of the Republican-run Senate, has already made it clear that passing the twenty-week ban would be one of his top priorities. But even if we only lose a couple of critical pro-choice champions—and there are several in tight races—we could begin to see incremental dismantling of hard-won reproductive rights.
Far too many women and families in our country have already lost any meaningful right to abortion care. Even more have been subjected to punitive and humiliating lectures and procedures—with no medical purpose—mandated by politicians, not doctors. Losing the Senate would do more than restrict abortion access everywhere in our country. It would put into power individuals whose very ideology is grounded in an idea of women as less than equal citizens, who must be controlled through laws that not only deny us our right to the medical care of our choosing, but also the knowledge that allows us to make informed decisions.
That’s why women not only can—but must—make the difference at polls this year, along with our male allies who believe in full equality of all Americans. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, her well-being, and her dignity.”
So on Tuesday, use your vote — your voice — to ensure that the most important decisions about your health, your body, and your life remain yours, and yours alone, to make.