Despite strong public support in the U.S. for abortion rights, Republican lawmakers have spent the past 3 years passing harsh laws that have dramatically cut access to reproductive health care, state by state, across huge swaths of the country. This Tuesday, ballot measures in Colorado, North Dakota, and Tennessee escalate this state-level chipping-away strategy by proposing “personhood” provisions and constitutional amendments that, if passed, would open the door to even more extreme abortion bans and health cuts for millions of people.
Some of these initiatives have a shot at passing — and that’s why it’s so critical that women show up in full force on Tuesday.
North Dakota and Colorado: Personhood measures threaten fundamental rights
Voters in North Dakota and Colorado face proposed constitutional amendments that would grant full “personhood” rights to a zygote at the moment of fertilization. Not only would this eliminate abortion rights in the state—including in cases of rape, incest, and health risks—but it would also ban certain forms of widely-used birth control and fertility treatments. The vaguely worded amendments, reproductive health advocates say, could result in far-reaching health care consequences, including limitations to pregnancy care and even investigations of miscarriages.
Because the law compels doctors to give equal treatment to embryos and pregnant women, doctors could be charged with criminal negligence if anything happens to an embryo — which could prevent them from making quick decisions in life-threatening emergencies such as ectopic pregnancies and incomplete miscarriages.
Beyond reproductive health care, personhood legislation also threatens a broad range of medical procedures including everything from in-vitro fertilization to end-of-life decisions. The North Dakota Coalition of Privacy in Health, one of the strongest opponents of North Dakota’s personhood measure, has warned that, “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” They also note that “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.”
National anti-choice organizations, including Personhood USA, are pressing for the measures in both states, where they are up against diverse coalitions of community organizations, health care workers and advocates, and civil rights and faith leaders.
The Measure 1 “personhood” proposal in North Dakota, where sweeping abortion restrictions were instated last year, could pass. A recent poll conducted by the University of North Dakota College of Business and Public Administration found that 49.9 percent of voters are in favor, 33 percent are opposed, and 17.1 percent are undecided.
But the large number of undecided voters isn’t surprising. In fact, as opponents of the measure have pointed out, the amendment’s language – which passed the state legislature well over a year and a half ago – is vague, and its supporters are uninterested in either calling it a personhood amendment or elucidating what it will do to voters (especially since, if passed, it could shut down the state’s only in vitro fertilization treatment center). For this reason, analysts warn, it is slipping by largely unnoticed, despite its potentially severe repercussions.
If passed, Measure 1 would amend the state constitution to include a new section stating, ‘The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.’ In other words, it would grant fertilized eggs with the full rights of U.S. citizens and, as a result, take away women’s constitutional right to choose and deprive them of the human right to have ownership of their own bodies.
In addition to the dangerous consequences mentioned above, the effects of Measure 1 threaten to reverberate throughout the entire health care system. The non-partisan North Dakota Medical Association has come out against the personhood measure, warning that it will “interfere with the physician practice” and make it harder to find qualified medical professionals willing to practice in North Dakota if the state imposes so many complicated restrictions on doctors. Some doctors have already testified before state lawmakers to say they will leave North Dakota if the abortion bans pass.
Ultimately, North Dakota women will end up resorting to dangerous “backroom” abortions, one former pediatrician warned North Dakota lawmakers during the 2013 legislative session, when the measure was passed by both GOP-controlled state legislatures. The Fargo-area doctor, who did his medical training before Roe v. Wade — a time when women were still dying of bacterial infections after botched abortion procedures — warns that the passage of the proposed personhood measure would pull North Dakota back into “the stone age of medicine.” Indeed, the evidence clearly shows that the legality of abortion has absolutely no correlation to abortion rates around the world, because women will continue to seek to terminate pregnancies regardless of the law. North Dakota’s personhood amendment would not reduce the number of abortions — just the number of safe abortions.
In Colorado, voters have rejected two previous attempts to pass similar personhood provisions. But this time, proponents of Amendment 67 have sought to frame the proposal as a “protection” for pregnant woman, because it would allow for fetal homicide charges. The Vote No 67 coalition, a Colorado campaign made up of dozens of local and state organizations, warns that the “misleading language of this far-reaching measure would actually harm pregnant women, and impede them from being able to seek medical treatment.” They say it would also criminalize doctors and other medical professionals who treat pregnant women.”
The latest poll, conducted by Suffolk University Political Research Center, finds that the measure is likely to fail, with 55.4 percent of Colorado voters opposing, 30.8 percent in favor, and 13.4 percent undecided. But voters need to stay vigilant — as Dr. Nanette Santoro, M.D., chair and professor at the University of Colorado OB/GYN Department, recently warned, Amendment 67 is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“Amendment 67 contains deliberately deceptive language designed to mislead Colorado voters,” Dr. Santoro wrote in the Denver Post. “Its support is led by extremists who want to force the rest of us to resolve our moral dilemmas surrounding pregnant women’s choices with their one-size-fits-all answer.” As for the wording of the bill, which claims to safeguard the health of women, Dr. Santoro had this to say: “Amendment 67 will not protect women — it will harm them. As an obstetrician gynecologist practicing for 34 years, it is hard to count all the ways Amendment 67 can rob adult, pregnant women from having control of their own bodies.”
Personhood legislation is not likely to go away any time soon, particularly as nationwide anti-abortion groups like Personhood USA continue to find conservative candidates aligned with their extreme anti-choice views. And as with the ballot measures in Colorado and North Dakota, future personhood legislation will have the same disturbing implications — after all, you can’t give rights to a zygote without simultaneously taking them away from women.
Tennessee: Amendment 1 would eliminate abortion rights from the state constitution
Women in Tennessee are facing an unprecedented fight to defend their abortion rights. The state’s proposed Constitutional Amendment 1, if passed, would amend the state’s constitution to read as follows:
“Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. 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 Republicans have sought to enact such a measure for more than a decade, following a ruling in 2000 in which the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down several harsh anti-abortion measures. Since then, that ruling has been used as a precedent to block other extreme anti-abortion bills, with the Court ruling that restricting abortion access violated the state constitution, which provides more explicit protection for abortion than the U.S. Constitution.
By changing the state constitution to clarify that it does not protect the right to abortion access, Amendment 1 would likely open the floodgates for a wave of anti-choice restrictions, many of which other red states have already seen. “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,” warns Planned Parenthood.
“The people behind this campaign, their ultimate goal is to create a situation where abortion will be technically legal, but it will be virtually impossible for women to access it,” Jeff Teague, President of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, told Mother Jones. “And Amendment 1 is going to give lawmakers carte blanche to pass anything in service of getting us to that point.”
The latest poll from Middle Tennessee State University finds that the outcome is “too close to call,” with 39 percent of voters in favor of the measure, 32 percent opposed, and a whopping 29 percent undecided. “Tennessee women do not need to be protected from their own decision-making, or to be provided with state-mandated counseling that encourages them to act against their own best interests,” Rebecca Terrell, director of Choices, a Memphis reproductive health clinic that provides abortion services, told Slate. “The regulations that this Amendment would enable our legislators to pass would be appalling.”
Illinois and Oregon: Pro-choice measures protect women’s health care, rights
While conservative legislators are working hard to chip away at women’s rights, progressive voters are fighting back with their own ballot measures promoting pro-woman values. In Oregon, voters will decide on a ballot measure that would permanently ban sex discrimination in the state constitution. Meanwhile, voters in Illinois will have the opportunity to voice their support for including birth control coverage in all health insurance plans. Although opponents of these measures claim they are unnecessary, supporters point to the unprecedented attacks on reproductive rights that are going on around the country as a clear indication that additional safeguards are not only necessary, but absolutely essential.
The Equal Rights for Women Initiative (Measure 89) — also known as the Equal Rights Amendment — will amend the state constitution to ensure that no state or political entity can infringe upon or deny a woman of her rights, privileges or immunity as a citizen because of her sex. Oregon’s current ban on sex discrimination is based on case law, and because it is not explicitly written into the state constitution, the concept of sex equity is thus subject to the interpretation of different judges over time, says Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo, the president of VoteERA.org. “The reason an ERA is needed is to provide women the highest level of equal protection possible, so they’re not open to future Supreme Court judges reinterpreting case law or to the winds of political change.”
The Equal Rights Amendment will also repeal current legislation that allows denial of these privileges so long as the denial is justified by a specific biological difference between men and women. With this measure on the ballot, Oregon’s voters have the opportunity to add Oregon to the list of 20 states that have made sure that women and men will be treated equally before the law, regardless of future legislators’ and justices’ personal opinions.
“Nobody can predict who our Supreme Court justices will be in the future,” former Washington County circuit court judge Nancy Campbell wrote in an opinion piece encouraging support for the amendment. “Without equality for women expressly written into the Oregon Constitution, Oregon women and girls will always be at risk of losing the gains they have made.”
The measure has garnered strong public support: an automated telephone interview poll conducted from February 22 to 24, 2013, by Public Policy Polling found that 80 percent of respondents believed that equal rights for men and women should be included in the Oregon Constitution. Twelve percent of respondents did not and 8 percent were unsure. The same poll further found that 75 percent of respondents would support a 2014 ballot measure to amend the constitution, while 16 percent would oppose and 10 percent were unsure. However, it is unclear if support for the measure remains that high in 2014, making it even more important for Oregon women to vote on Tuesday.
Voters in Illinois will have the opportunity to vote on whether prescription birth control should be covered in health insurance plans that cover prescription drugs. This move is on the ballot as a non-binding advisory question and will not directly enact any laws or amendments. However, this advisory question is still extremely important.
The Illinois legislature placed this measure on the ballot in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision that severely threatens women’s reproductive rights. Widespread voter support for this measure has the potential to send a strong statement to Illinois state officials regarding access to birth control as a basic health care right for women — and since the state legislature put it on the ballot, it is likely to respond to this public endorsement by passing relevant legislation.
Nationwide: Reproductive rights on the line
In the 2010 elections, anti-choice politicians seized control of many state legislatures, vowing to focus on the nation’s economic challenges. Once elected, however, these same lawmakers abandoned their promise and instead launched a War on Women, taking every opportunity to further chip away at women’s autonomy. More restrictions on abortion were passed between 2011 and 2013 than in the entire preceding decade, according to the Guttmacher Institute — and 2014 is keeping up with that trend.
While the three ballot measures in Tennessee, North Dakota and Colorado represent the most extreme, immediate legislative threats to reproductive rights, conservative candidates across the country are running on platforms promising to push through even more anti-choice legislation. In North Carolina, for example, the Republican candidate for Senate says he believes the state should have the authority to ban contraceptives, even though 99 percent of reproductive age women have used at least one form of contraception. The Republican candidate for Governor of Colorado has called IUD’s abortifacients, a claim that is entirely without scientific or medical merit. And in Michigan, the Republican Senate candidate supports a personhood amendment that would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Last year, the Republican controlled House of Representatives actually passed H.R.1797, a bill that would override state laws and ban abortion after 20 weeks nationwide, with no exception to protect a woman’s health, and without an adequate exception in cases of rape or incest. Under the bill, physicians who violated the ban could receive a five-year prison sentence. Given that the average sentence for rape is just at five years, this 20-week ban could have the grotesque result of sending a woman’s doctor to prison to serve a longer term than a woman’s rapist.
Fortunately, the Democratically-controlled Senate never took up the bill, and it never became law. However, now there is a real concern that the safety brake of sanity provided by the upper chamber will be gone if the far-right gains control of the Senate this week.
Curiously, even though reproductive health is one of the most hotly disputed issues on the American political scene today, most people don’t realize that the laws restricting abortion are relatively new. In 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, Supreme Court Justice Blackmun noted in his majority opinion that anti-abortion laws “… are not of ancient or even of common-law origin. Instead, they derive from statutory changes effected, for the most part, in the latter half of the 19th century.”
Indeed, anti-choice laws in America were the product of a darker time in our history when women could not own property in their own name, could not hold a patent, practice law, medicine or dentistry, or even vote.
But today, women have the right to vote. And since 1986, women have been voting in greater numbers than men even in non-presidential election years, such as this one. With a low turnout expected, it is going to be critically important for women to go to the polls — and to bring along every friend, family member, and neighbor — and use the power of the ballot box to tell their elected officials that reproductive choices should not be taken out of women’s hands. Women must use their vote to proclaim they will not be quietly relegated to second-class citizens nor meekly stand by as politicians turn the clock back to the 19th century. Because how maddening and absolutely heartbreaking it would be to hear the question asked all over the country on November 5th: “Where were the women?”