A New Front in the War on Women's Rights
By Susan Stanton, NOW Public Policy Intern
NOW staff photo by Lisa Bennett
Every January 22, NOW leaders and activists honor the day the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in the United States. Anti-reproductive freedom forces are attempting to challenge Roe by passing state ballot initiatives that would make abortion illegal in most cases in those states. Pictured: Kristen Moorhead (left), Mari Horike.
This November, women's reproductive rights will be put before the voters in at least five states. Heavily funded by right-wing religious and political extremists, the effort is part of a strategy they hope will turn out voters to elect like-minded politicians while placing new limits on women's access to reproductive health care.
Proponents of two of the most extreme measures, in Georgia and Missouri, failed to meet state requirements. But ballot initiatives remain in play in South Dakota, California, Oregon, Montana and Colorado.
Ballot Initiatives Often Mislead
In some states, individuals and groups frustrated with the ordinary legislative process can submit policy positions for a popular vote, often by gathering a set number of signatures on petitions. Those petitions are often given deliberately confusing or outright misleading titles and worded in ways intended to confuse the public (see the infuriatingly titled Colorado Equal Rights Amendment below). Voters whose attention is focused on a high-profile presidential or senatorial race may, relying on the title alone, inadvertently vote for a ballot proposition in direct opposition to their beliefs. Even if a ballot measure must later be voted on by the state legislature, a positive popular vote creates a powerful, though sometimes unjustified, presumption that it represents "the will of the people."
South Dakota, Once Again
In 2006, after an intense campaign led by a coalition which included many NOW activists, South Dakota voters rejected an initiative which would ban all abortions, except to save the life of the woman. The group Vote Yes For Life has filed a new initiative for the 2008 ballot which adds exceptions for rape, incest and threat to the health of the pregnant woman, though those exceptions will be difficult to use. Reportedly double the number of required signatures were gathered and are currently in the verification process.
While the 2006 measure was rejected by 56 percent of the voters, this new initiative is even more dangerous and we must oppose it with a strong voter education and organizing campaign.
Third Round in California
In a wear-them-down strategy, abortion opponents have put parental notification on the California ballot this year for the third time. As recently as 2006, California NOW activists were leading organizers in the defeat of a similar initiative, the new "Waiting Period and Parental Notification Initiative" would prohibit abortion for unemancipated minors until 48 hours after the physician notifies the minor's parent, legal guardian or, if parental abuse has been reported, an alternative adult family member.
Oregon Would Make Abortion Murder
An initiative in Oregon would prohibit "the use of public or private funds to facilitate the killing of any human being from the moment of conception, wholly or partially within the womb or after delivery, and the acceptance of funds for performing such a procedure." Violations would be punishable as murder or accessory to murder. The initiative specifically exempts the state's execution of someone convicted by a jury of a capital offense. An Oregon parental notification ballot initiative failed in 2006. Supporters of the 2008 initiative have until July 3 to collect sufficient signatures.
Equal Rights for Fertilized Eggs
In Colorado, the misleadingly-named "Colorado Equal Rights Amendment," would add to the state constitution a definition of "person" as "any human being from the moment of fertilization." Colorado for Equal Rights has until May 13 to collect signatures. Life for Montana is collecting signatures to amend the Montana constitution's Declaration of Rights to provide a "right to life" and to extend that right to the moment of fertilization. They have until June 20 to collect the required signatures. The Georgia legislature attempted to place a similar measure, as a constitutional amendment, on that state's November ballot. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed, and the amendment failed to reach the required two-thirds majority in either the state House or Senate.
Such wording is particularly dangerous as it could ban some of the most popular and effective forms of contraception, including emergency contraception, the IUD, and some forms of the birth control pill. For an analysis of the tactics and intent behind these "fetal personhood" efforts, read "Viewpoint: Not Just Semantics".
Missouri Act Withdrawn
In Missouri, proponents of the cynically-titled ballot measure, the "Prevention of Coerced and Unsafe Abortion Act" withdrew their submission when it became clear that they would fall short of the requisite number of signatures by May 4. While it appeared to leave the door open for some abortions, this law would be so intrusive and restrictive that no doctor would be likely to perform abortions in Missouri if it passed.
A Coordinated Campaign
All of these initiatives work to ban abortions by establishing the legal definition that fertilized eggs are people -- fully endowed with all the rights of a born human being. The driving force behind some of these ballot measures is the Thomas More Law Center, a right-wing advocacy organization based in Michigan, which seeks court cases through which the center can fight to protect "Christian family values."