Abortion Access Could Be Further Restricted in the South After Midterms

In the hotly contested 2014 midterm elections, one topic has managed to slip under the radar: abortion rights. Proposed ballot measures and amendments in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota seek to chip away at the legality and availability of access to abortions. The proposed personhood amendment in Tennessee—where one in four abortions are performed on out of state residents—is perhaps the most closely watched. The passage of the amendment would continue a pattern of eroding access to abortions in the South.

Tennessee is on track to become the second state after Missouri with a personhood amendment. Since the passage of the amendment in 2012, the number of abortions performed in Missouri has dropped dramatically. It is likely that Tennessee will pass Amendment 1, an amendment to the state constitution that would effectively ban all forms of abortion. It reads, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or require the funding of an abortion…including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”

A lack of available polling on this issue has left both sides uncertain whether the measure will pass come November. If passed, it is likely that the measure would face immediate constitutional challenges; in 2000, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to seek an abortion.

The outcome of these ballot measures matters not just to the residents of Tennessee, but also to women in the neighboring states of MIssissippi and Alabama. In these states, and throughout the Deep South, access to abortions and the number of abortion clinics is so limited that women are forced to travel long distances and even cross state lines to get an abortion. The decreasing availability of abortions puts women seeking abortions at medical risk. Even if the measure passes, pregnant women will likely continue to seek abortions leading to the possibility that dangerous “underground” or unregulated abortions will become more prevalent.

A similar personhood measure will be on the ballot in North Dakota this November. The language of this amendment, named “Life Begins at Conception,” is distinctly religious. Polling shows that 49.9 percent of those surveyed currently support the initiative, which is unsurprising given that 67 percent of residents identify themselves as religious. This is worrisome for opponents of the amendment, who are concerned that the unintended consequences of its passage might include restrictions on certain forms of birth control, in vitro fertilization (IVF), and doctors’ ability to help in the case of life-threatening pregnancies. Additionally, experts suggest that passing this bill would be so controversial that the resulting lawsuits would put an extra burden on taxpayer dollars. If passed, North Dakotans would have a difficult time finding an out-of-state abortion clinic because while abortion is legal in South Dakota, laws in the state limit out-of-state residents’ access and availability to abortion.

Pro-life lobbyists are also making headway in states like Colorado, where the “Colorado Definition of ‘Personhood’ Initiative”, Amendment 67, is on the ballot for the upcoming November elections. While Colorado voters did defeat personhood initiatives in 2008 and 2010 by a 40 percent margin, the Colorado Right to Life (CRL) group is gaining ground, with the latest polls showing their effort just 17 points behind. The CRL is benefiting from of Colorado’s growing Latino population, a reliably Catholic vote. While pro-life advocates have chipped away at the significant polling deficit, it is likely too large a margin to overcome this close to the election.

Despite growing popular support for Roe v. Wade, “pro-lifers” are actively trying to undermine the landmark Supreme Court decision, chiefly through the promotion of “personhood” amendments. These measures cannot be challenged under Roe v. Wade because they do not explicitly ban abortion. Instead, they seek to change the definition of personhood to include the fetus, giving the embryo the same rights as every other human. Pro-life advocates insist these ballot measures would ban surgeries that save women from ectopic pregnancies, because the doctor would have to give the embryo the same rights as the mother. Additionally, scientific methods of inducing pregnancy, like in vitro fertilization , would be restricted for this same reason. It is often the case with IVF that when two or more of the eggs become fertilized, doctors will “selectively remove” all but one of the embryos because of the complications that can arise from carrying more than one baby.

The ballot measures and amendments put forth for this election cycle are distinctly out of touch with the national liberalizing trend on social issues, as well as popular American opinion. The last time the public was polled on the subject of abortion in 2013, 70 percent of Americans felt that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, the highest percentage since the landmark decision in 1973. It is likely that the Supreme Court will not overturn that decision, as it has recently refused to hear cases concerning personhood amendments from Wisconsin and Oklahoma, leaving the issue up to the states to decide. The Supreme Court has chosen similar inaction on gay marriage lawsuits, and by refusing to hear the cases, has effectively made gay marriage legal in thirty states. The precedent set by the Supreme Court gives decision power to the states and, more importantly, to the voters who wish to have a say in the constitutional definition of personhood.

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