Anti-Choice Ballot Initiative Watch: 2008

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Anti-Choice Ballot Initiative Watch: 2008

Dana Goldstein

Anti-choicers are circumventing the legislative and judicial systems by placing abortion bans right on the ballot.

Conservatives have long trumped progressives at using the ballot initiative process to circumvent governors, state legislatures, and the courts. By sending paid organizers out to gather signatures from registered voters, they’ve successfully placed their policy priorities straight onto November ballots, where if they are passed, state legislatures often can’t overturn or amend them without super-majorities — or without going back to the ballot.

In recent years, affirmative action and immigrants’ rights have been targeted by the Right for the ballot initiative treatment. Most infamously, California businessman Ward Connerly successfully overturned Michigan’s affirmative action policies by giving his quest the misleading name "The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative." This year, conservatives are applying similarly confusing rhetoric to their nationwide drive to restrict reproductive freedom at the ballot box. Here’s a primer of what to expect in various states this November.

Directly Challenging Roe

The most ideologically strident of the new anti-choice initiatives are the so-called "Human Life Amendments." If approved at the ballot, these initiatives would amend state constitutions to declare that life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg — and that the resulting mass of cells has the exact same legal rights as a human being living outside of the womb. The campaign to put "Human Life Amendment" initiatives on state ballots is led by the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based organization that describes itself as "the sword and shield for people of faith." The group’s goal is to directly challenge Roe v. Wade by provoking pro-choice lawsuits, ultimately culminating in a Supreme Court case that would take advantage of the Court’s new, more conservative make-up. In practice, the Human Life Amendment would not create new laws or void existing ones, but would provide state legislatures and governors with constitutional backing for laws outlawing abortions and even some forms of hormonal contraception (those that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, not fertilization itself).

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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The good news is that of the four states targeted by Thomas More, two of them — Georgia and Oregon — haven’t allowed the signature-gathering process to move forward. That leaves Colorado and Montana as battle-grounds. In Colorado last week, a coalition of religiously-motivated anti-choicers with the misleading name Colorado for Equal Rights submitted 131,000 signatures in support of placing the Human Life Amendment on the ballot. That’s more signatures than are legally necessary. In Montana, where the initiative is called the "Personhood Amendment," the signature gathering process is still underway. There, as in other states considering the proposal, its radical and even illegal nature has split the anti-choice community down the middle. That National Right to Life Committee, a leader in its field, has not endorsed the strategy. And Catholic groups, including the Montana Catholic Conference, have outright rejected it. In a statement, Montana’s bishops explained their rationale as such: "Legal experts agree that the current Supreme Court would, at best, decline to hear the case, and at worst, use the opportunity to reaffirm the right to abortion yet another time. The more times the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions are affirmed, the more difficult it becomes to obtain further hearings from the Court and to expect decisions to end abortion." (For a June 25, 2008, update on the Montana ballot initiative, click here.)

Targeting Health Care Providers, Infantalizing Women

In this area, there has already been a major victory for reproductive rights advocates. Through a lawsuit, Planned Parenthood stopped a proposed ballot initiative in Missouri that would have made performing an abortion an act of criminal negligence unless a woman was evaluated beforehand for so-called "abortion risk factors." Those factors would have included common psychological and emotional conditions such as depression and anxiety, which very often accompany any unexpected pregnancy — regardless of a woman’s decision on whether or not to seek an abortion. The measure had been pushed by the Eliot Institute, a group that traffics in the scientifically false notion that abortions cause breast cancer and other chronic diseases. In fact, abortion is one of the safest surgeries offered, and is considerably less risky for a woman’s health than carrying a pregnancy to term.

Straight-Forward Abortion Bans

In 2006 South Dakota voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have banned all abortions, including in cases of rape, incest, and risk to the mother’s health or life. This year, anti-choicers are trying again with a ban that includes those exceptions. They have already gathered enough signatures to place their initiative on the ballot.

In California, anti-choicers are collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would "declare God the creator of life" and change the law so that "abortion after 24 weeks is murder unless necessary to save the mother’s life." It’s not clear who the initiative’s backers believe should be charged with murder: women, doctors, or both?

Parental Notification

Also in California, anti-choicers are gathering signatures to place an initiative on the ballot that would require parental notification for a minor to obtain an abortion. Voters have rejected such measures twice in the past.