Voters in two states are weighing in on abortion restrictions this November, considering whether to approve a set of ballot issues as a national fight intensifies over the future of abortion law in the US.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump sparred on the topic in September, with the former vice president arguing that Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, was “on the ballot” in 2020. But as Republicans look to deepen the conservative tilt of the high court with the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, voters in Louisiana and Colorado voters will directly consider questions on the future of abortion access in their states.
In Louisiana, voters will decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to add language that expressly states the document offers no protections for a right to abortion or the funding of abortion. Should Roe be overturned, Louisiana’s Proposed Amendment No. 1 would prevent the state courts from declaring abortion restrictions unconstitutional at the state level.
In Colorado, voters will consider Proposition 115, which would ban abortion beginning at 22 weeks of pregnancy. The measure includes exceptions to save the life of the pregnant woman but not for instances of rape or incest. Doctors who continue to perform abortions at 22 weeks could face a fine up to $5,000.
‘Labyrinth of restrictions’
Colorado is one of seven states that does not bar some abortions past a specific point in pregnancy, according to data from the abortion-rights research group the Guttmacher Institute. Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s office shows that women from over 30 states have traveled to Colorado to access abortions.
Those out-of-state abortion-seekers show “that care needs to be shored up in other states so that it’s more accessible, but also that Colorado is important in the landscape of abortion access nationally,” Elizabeth Nash, the interim associate director of state issues at Guttmacher, told CNN.
Louisiana’s ballot measure, meanwhile, exemplifies how there are “a lot of layers to how they have developed their labyrinth of restrictions,” she said.
The Louisiana ballot measure marks another attempt by the state to restrict abortion. The US Supreme Court struck down in June a Louisiana restriction barring doctors from performing the procedure unless they had admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and a decision from a federal appellate court prevented the state’s “heartbeat” abortion ban passed last year from going into effect.
Katie Glenn, government affairs counsel at Americans United for Life, pointed to the Supreme Court case in which Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberal justices to strike down the Louisiana law but also left the door open to more state limits on abortion.
“We’re hopeful (the Supreme Court will) continue to do is to hand this back to the state so that states can decide what’s appropriate for them, that we’ll see lawmakers and more states doing this kind of thing,” she said.
Louisiana: Lawmaker moved to act
State Sen. Katrina Jackson, an anti-abortion Democrat who co-sponsored the Senate bill that ultimately landed Louisiana’s constitutional amendment on the ballot, told CNN that she was moved to act after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s constitution ensured a right to an abortion.
If a state constitution is interpreted as ensuring a right to an abortion, she argued, it could then be interpreted to ensure a right to a state-funded abortion.
Jackson said that she has promoted the amendment on social media and by traveling around the state, and that many anti-abortion groups and churches have backed it. Supporters, Jackson said, realize that they won’t be able to ban abortion in Louisiana at this point because of Supreme Court rulings.
“But where we do stand is we don’t recognize the right to it, and therefore we do not fund abortion in our state — and that’s the entire goal of this amendment,” she said.
Angie Thomas, associate director of the Louisiana Right to Life, said that the group’s campaign supporting the amendment has included TV commercials, a website, social media advertising and yard signs.
“We’ve been really getting the word out about exactly what this amendment does, exactly what it doesn’t do and just encouraging people to vote for it,” she said.
Abortion rights supporters have warned the measure could have serious consequences.
“When we’re talking about changing the constitution to strip people of the right to abortion, we’re also really talking about what that means for survivors of rape and incest,” said Michelle Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana, a reproductive rights nonprofit that’s part of a coalition against the amendment. “We’re also talking about what that means for … the criminalization of people who may be seeking to self-manage an abortion if they can’t access a legal abortion in the state of Louisiana anymore.”
Erenberg said she worries that Barrett’s nomination means abortion rights advocates won’t be able to rely on the Supreme Court to strike down anti-abortion laws.
“To me it feels like maybe there was some complacency among people in Louisiana, that, ‘Oh, the Louisiana politicians can pass these crazy laws, but you know, they’ll be stopped in court,'” she said. “Well that may not necessarily be the case.”
Steffani Bangel, executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, called the amendment “a slippery slope,” outlining possible scenarios in a world in which Roe is overturned.
“The reality is that people in our communities are going to suffer in ways that are immeasurable because abortion doesn’t go away,” she said.
Colorado: Supporters and opponents mobilize
For co-sponsor Giuliana Day, the 22-week abortion ban on the Colorado ballot represents a year and a half of community activism since she first learned the state didn’t have a time limit on abortion.
“It’s been an incredible mobilization of people that are on fire about Proposition 115,” Day said, referencing “an army of volunteers.” “And I’ve been getting together in the communities and delivering flyers and information, because the main thing is to inform people.”
The ballot measure comes on the heels of a slew of other states’ bills last year that tried to limit abortion to various time frames. Day said the Colorado measure has “no relationship” to other states’ full abortion bans or bills pertaining to fetal personhood.
Day called Colorado’s lack restrictions on abortions past a specific point in pregnancy “one of the darkest secrets in the state,” and said that to her and fellow supporters, Proposition 115 is “the human rights issue of our lifetime.”
The campaign has gained support from anti-abortion Democratic groups and over 160 health care workers, Day said, adding that she’s optimistic it will pass.
But opponents of the measure see the ban as a potential threat to abortion seekers’ health — and abortion access in states nationwide.
Karen Middleton, executive director of reproductive rights group Cobalt, said her organization and several others formed a coalition in the spring to fight the proposed restrictions. They’ve used TV, digital media, emails, texts, phone calls and direct mail.
“If we’re able to talk to voters and really get a message, our message, in front of them about how harmful this could be, we believe it will move in our favor. We believe we will be able to defeat this, but it is very close to call,” she said.
Several high-profile Democratic Colorado politicians have opposed the measure, including Gov. Jared Polis, Sen. Michael Bennet, and Senate candidate and former Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Middleton criticized the ballot measure’s lack of exceptions for rape and incest and said that regarding the exception in instances of life or death, “if you’re making a life or death decision, the life of the mother is already at extreme risk.”
Colorado, she said, could be a test case for anti-abortion ballot initiatives in other states.
“If they think they can be successful, they will then run it in lots of other states,” Middleton said of abortion opponents. “So we really see from a national perspective, access to care is critical.”