AMAC Exclusive – Shane Harris
After widespread jubilation following the Dobbs Supreme Court decision this summer, many in the pro-life movement likely now feel a sense of whiplash as they unpack a series of electoral setbacks last Tuesday. In a number of deep red states, voters rejected pro-life measures, while Democrat candidates who leaned heavily on fearmongering about “bodily autonomy” fared unexpectedly well in midterm races. But there were still some bright spots for pro-lifers, as well as some important lessons that could guide the movement to success in the months and years ahead.
With the release of the Dobbs decision on June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, effectively returning the power to set restrictions on abortion to the individual states. Under Roe and Casey, every state had to allow abortion procedures until a fetus was viable outside the womb (about 23 weeks). States could then make state-specific decisions about whether or not to permit abortions later in pregnancy.
Many elected Democrats and left-wing activists insinuated that Dobbs would mean an immediate blanket ban on all abortions nationwide – a falsity the mainstream media happily helped spread like wildfire. Abortion rights became the rallying cry of the left for the midterms, and Democrats doubled down on assertions that “abortion is healthcare” and women in the United States are “under attack.” In reality, while some red states did institute more stringent restrictions on the procedure, abortion laws remained unchanged in most states, with some blue states even expanding the practice to allow abortions up until the moment of birth.
That all set the stage for ballot initiatives where voters would have the chance to decide for themselves what their state’s stance on abortion should be. In total, five states (California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont) had abortion-related measures on the ballot last week. In each case, voters dealt the pro-life movement a significant blow.
In California, Michigan, and Vermont, voters approved measures to amend their state constitutions to enshrine a right to abortion. Given the liberal voting patterns of these states in recent years, the outcomes here were unsurprising.
The more troubling results came in Kentucky and Montana, two deep red states that conventional wisdom held would be sympathetic to protecting unborn babies.
In Kentucky, legislators proposed an amendment to the state constitution which simply stated that nothing in the Kentucky Constitution creates a right to abortion or requires government funding of abortion. In essence, the amendment would have prevented a court from saying that the Kentucky Constitution implicitly protects a right to abortion without specifically mentioning it, as the U.S. Supreme Court said about the U.S. Constitution in Roe. Voters shot down the amendment 52.4%-47.6%.
A state statute on the ballot in Montana produced an even more disturbing result. LR-131, the “Medical Care Requirements for Born-Alive Infants Measure,” would have classified any infant born alive as a legal person – thus requiring doctors to provide medical care to a baby born alive as a result of a botched abortion. Voters rejected the measure 52.5%-47.5%.
Those two defeats also came on the heels of another disappointing outcome in Kansas on August 2nd, where voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have expressly granted the state legislature the power to pass laws regarding abortion. By a margin of 59%-41%, voters rejected the measure and upheld a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling which held that abortion is protected under the Kansas Bill of Rights.
So, what is the pro-life movement to make of these results? Elected Democrats and the mainstream media have claimed victory, suggesting that abortion was the deciding factor in Republicans’ lackluster performance and the American people are decidedly in favor of abortion rights. But that analysis misses important nuances of the debate, and discounts important progress that the pro-life movement has made in recent months.
First, pro-lifers should not make the mistake of thinking that Dobbs or any future favorable court decisions are pyrrhic victories. While Dobbs resulted in a positive outcome for the pro-life movement, the case was about the U.S. Constitution and whether or not it protects a right to abortion. It was not about the morality of abortion itself, no matter the media spin. A central advantage the pro-life movement has is that its arguments are grounded in the plain language of written law and scientific fact. When it comes to something as critical as protecting innocent life, abandoning the legal fight for fear of real or imagined electoral backlash is unwise.
However, the pro-life movement should also recognize that it clearly faces strong cultural headwinds. For decades, every institution from Hollywood to the corporate media has romanticized abortion as an “empowering” act for women while downplaying the horrific realities of the procedure. Women who regret having an abortion are silenced and marginalized despite the lifelong trauma they endure. Combatting the relentless stream of falsehoods about abortion, pregnancy, and pro-life pregnancy centers emanating from entities like Planned Parenthood is a monumental challenge, and one the pro-life community must continue in spite of setbacks. Again, pro-lifers can be confident that protecting life is always something worth fighting for no matter the outcome of elections.
As a practical matter, pro-life politicians should embrace the view that incremental progress is better than no progress, and work to meet the public where they are. In general, polling shows that most Americans are opposed to late-term abortions but want to allow abortion early on in pregnancy. Depending on the poll, public support for abortion starts dropping around 12-15 weeks, and typically after a fetal heartbeat is detected in red states. Pro-life candidates are doing no favors to the movement by proposing policies that are out of step with the will of the electorate and losing to pro-abortion candidates in the process.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Republican governors who have legislated according to this rough model of public opinion won some of the biggest GOP victories on Tuesday. In Ohio and Texas, governors Mike DeWine and Greg Abbott – who both signed heartbeat bills into law this year – cruised to re-election wins. In Florida, Ron DeSantis, who banned abortion after 15 weeks, also easily won re-election. In places like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Republican gubernatorial candidates struggled to clearly stake out their position on abortion, Democrats won.
Recognizing where public opinion is in their favor can also help pro-lifers expose the radicalism of the left on abortion. Democrats who oppose a 15-week ban are then put in the position of having to explain why it should be permissible to kill an unborn baby that has a heartbeat, 10 fingers and toes, and is capable of feeling pain. This turns the “compassion” argument that Democrats so frequently rely on against them, revealing the true depravity of supporting abortion up until – and in some cases even after – the moment of birth.
While last Tuesday was a setback for the pro-life movement, it was not a defeat. There are already four potential ballot initiatives dealing with abortion on the horizon in 2023, and six in 2024. Should pro-lifers learn from 2022 and continue their tireless advocacy work, better days are surely ahead.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Shane_Harris_.
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