On abortion, election delivered mixed messages

Activists promote a Tennessee initiative to restrict abortion. It was victorious. Antiabortion measures in Colorado and North Dakota were soundly defeated.
(Jim Weber / Commercial Appeal)
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The 2014 midterm election was a mixed bag for abortion rights supporters: Two out of three state ballot measures that would have regulated the procedure went down to defeat, but control of the U.S. Senate swung to the Republican Party, with its antiabortion candidates claiming victory.

“It is a happy day for us, a great day for pro-lifers,” said Marilyn Musgrave, vice president for government affairs with the Susan B. Anthony List, which advocates for female antiabortion candidates. “The life issue won.”

During a Family Research Council webcast Wednesday, Musgrave ticked off the Senate races that social conservatives viewed as victories, including the defeat of Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado and the forced runoff for Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu in Louisiana.


Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said voters were delivering a message that was “not so much an embracing of a GOP vision, but a denouncing of the policies of this administration, which have been pro-abortion, anti-family, anti-faith. But in order to keep that confidence and secure it, the Republicans will have to deliver.”

No. 1 on the social conservatives’ wish list, Musgrave said, is a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, followed by “no taxpayer funding of abortion. ... And I think we’re going to have some great allies in the United States Senate. It is a new day.”

The 20-week limit would appear to exceed Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing a constitutional right to abortion. That ruling permitted states to restrict abortion after viability — the fetus’ ability to survive outside the womb, which is generally from 22 to 24 weeks.

Voters in Tennessee passed a measure, with 53% in favor, that abortion rights activists say will strip the state constitution of protections for a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. Tennessee becomes the second state after Rhode Island to take such an action.

In 2000, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed that a woman has a right to an abortion, a right that is protected by the state constitution, said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate with the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for abortion rights.

Since then, Nash said Wednesday, abortion opponents have been trying to roll back that protection, “and last night the voters voted for it.”


Tennessee already has restrictions in place, including parental notification if a minor seeks the procedure and limits on public funding, she said, and more measures probably will be debated at the state level in the next session.

“The Legislature is very conservative and so is the governor,” Nash said. “So it would not be surprising to see multiple restrictions passed in 2015.”

But voters in North Dakota and Colorado soundly defeated so-called personhood measures on Tuesday. Although the two used different language, the probable outcome of both would have been to ban abortion outright.

North Dakota’s Measure 1, for example, stated that “the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” An overwhelming percentage of those who cast ballots — 64% — voted no, even though North Dakota is one of the most restrictive states in the country for abortion access and has only one clinic.

Colorado’s version, Amendment 67, would have given a fertilized egg the same rights as a person. Again, about 64% of voters were opposed. Voters rejected similar efforts in 2008 and 2010, also by wide margins.

“The two measures in North Dakota and Colorado were personhood initiatives, and we have never lost one of those in the country so far,” said Sarah Stoesz, chief executive of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. “There have been five. We’ve won every time in very conservative places.”


Stoesz also said Wednesday that social conservatives were “disingenuous” if they proclaimed that the Senate switching to Republican control would give them a mandate for restricting access to abortion.

Republicans who won Tuesday “did not run on those issues,” Stoesz said. “They ran on other issues — ‘Washington is broken. Fix the gridlock.’ ... I would argue that, had they run on an antiabortion platform, they would not have won.”