Abortion foes buoyed by the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority are rallying last-minute support for ballot initiatives in three states that would ban or significantly limit access to the procedure.
Measures in West Virginia and Alabama would amend those state constitutions to expressly declare that abortion rights are not protected, allowing conservative state legislatures to ban the procedure should the high court strike down Roe vs. Wade. West Virginia’s measure also seeks to cut off public funding for abortions, while Alabama’s would grant full “personhood” rights to fetuses.
Story Continued Below
A third measure in Oregon would effectively cut off public funding for abortions, blocking access to residents enrolled in Medicaid and state and municipal employee health plans. Its backers are appealing to libertarian-leaning and moderate voters in the customarily pro-abortion rights state, by framing the measure as a fiscal rather than religious or moral issue.
“It’s one thing for people to say, ‘Maybe it’s okay for other people,’ but it’s quite another thing to say, ‘I want my taxpayer dollars paying for that,’” said Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life. “Voters are anxious to voice their opposition to their tax dollars being used for elective abortions.”
The ballot initiatives have taken on greater weight following the shift in the ideological balance of the U.S. Supreme Court, though they were in the works before President Donald Trump nominated conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace the more moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The Oregon effort remains a long shot: A recent poll commissioned by Oregon Public Broadcasting found voters overwhelmingly opposed, 50 to 31 percent. West Virginia and Alabama’s measures also face tough battles, with opponents outspending supporters by wide margins. The Alliance for a Pro-Life Alabama has reported raising less than $4,000 while the two main groups working to defeat the ballot measure — Alabama for Healthy Families and Alabama Students Voting No on Amendment 2 — had together raised more than $925,000.
“It would pave the way to outlaw abortion in the state of Alabama, even in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk,” Barbara Ann Luttrell, the communications director of Planned Parenthood Southeast, told POLITICO. “The majority of Alabamians, even Trump voters, believe abortion should be safe and legal in some circumstances. So we’re not running a persuasion campaign. We’re running an education campaign to explain exactly what the amendment would do.”
Planned Parenthood, as part of Alabama For Healthy Families coalition, has dispatched staffers and volunteers to knock on doors, work phone banks and hand out literature across the state. The coalition has also bought TV and digital ads.
West Virginia does not require groups involved with ballot initiatives to disclose their spending, and there has been no public polling on the measure there. But a coalition of more than 30 groups opposed to Amendment 1 says internal polling “suggests we do have a path to victory.”
“We’re definitely confident given the research we’ve done in the field,” a representative of the No On 1 coalition told POLITICO.
Because the majority of West Virginians are opposed to abortion, the group has crafted a privacy and autonomy message for skeptical voters.
“This is about government overreach into personal medical decisions,” the coalition’s representative said.
Anti-abortion constitutional amendments are risky because while they are more difficult to overturn and harder to challenge in court, even some voters who oppose abortion may see them as a bridge too far. Though Tennessee succeeded in passing an amendment to strip abortion rights out of the state constitution in 2014, recent attempts to pass so-called personhood amendments in Colorado, Mississippi and North Dakota all failed.
Foster says anti-abortion advocates have retooled and redoubled their efforts following those setbacks.
“We all learn from past failures,” she said. “I see a tremendous focus in these campaigns on grassroots outreach, and I really am noticing how effective these campaigns are at the ground game, in West Virginia in particular.”
Even if all three measures fail, their presence on the November ballot may drive turnout in close races. Conservatives are particularly hoping that the abortion question boosts the fortunes of Republican Patrick Morrisey, who currently trails Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) by double digits.
“Sometimes ballot initiatives are put forth as way to gin up voters who will vote for more conservative candidates,” said Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that supports abortion rights. “It’s a tactic we’ve seen in the past. But it might backfire this year given the energy on the other side.”
Kavanaugh’s recent fiery confirmation battle has indeed shaped the final weeks of the campaign.
“I’m seeing a lot of energy on both sides,” Foster told POLITICO. “To have another justice on the court committed to textualism as judicial philosophy provides the opportunity for life-affirming policies to be upheld. So the pro-life side has plans to ramp up our efforts because we’re seeing those new opportunities.”
Foster says her organization is working to support the three state campaigns, funding traditional advertising, social media pushes and research. She declined to reveal how much the organization is spending on the effort.
But the way Kavanaugh was confirmed even after multiple accusations of sexual assault has also fired up supporters of abortion rights.
“I’ve been seeing more activity from those who oppose the initiatives,” Nash said. “The reproductive rights groups have been more prominent. There is definitely a groundswell to oppose the initiatives and they’re making their message heard.”