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Abortion ballot measure results show starkly divided opinion on reproductive issues

Reproductive rights on the line in 2020
Reproductive rights on the line in 2020 06:24

Voters went opposite directions on abortion ballot measures in Colorado and Louisiana on Election Day, handling wins to both abortion rights supporters and opponents and highlighting the country's starkly divided opinions on reproductive issues. 

In Colorado, voters protected access to abortion later in pregnancy, striking down a ballot measure that would have banned nearly all abortion procedures after 22 weeks of pregnancy. But in Louisiana, anti-abortion rights groups saw a major victory: 62% of voters approved a constitutional amendment that clarifies the state's Declaration of Rights does not protect the right to an abortion, an addition that would make it nearly impossible to keep abortion legal in the state if Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Those starkly different positions — in one state maintaining expanded access to abortion and another moving towards a complete ban — highlight what Elizabeth Nash, interim associate director for state policy at the Guttmacher Institute, called a "divided country." They also offer a preview of how states may react if the Supreme Court decides to reverse Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

"The federal right to abortion is looking very precarious and that's the backdrop for what we're seeing in the states," said Nash, whose work at Guttmacher, a reproductive health research group that supports abortion rights, involves tracking state regulations on abortion. "Your access to abortion is, and is going to be, very much depending on where you live."

This year's abortion-related ballot measures took on new urgency given the recent confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cements the Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative majority, throwing into question the future of Roe v. Wade. If the landmark decision were to be overturned, individual states would decide whether to keep abortion legal, turning fight over abortion access into a state-by-state battle, said Mary Ziegler, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law and the author of "Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present."

"It's a preview of what's to come," said Ziegler, referring to the Election Day fights over abortion.

With Justice Barrett's confirmation, many believe reversing the landmark decision is a matter of when, not if. The Supreme Court on Friday is scheduled to discuss whether to take a case from Mississippi that directly challenges Roe. If they decline it, more than a dozen similar cases are just one step away.

What comes next won't be simple, Ziegler said. While states like Louisiana and its conservative neighbors have positioned themselves to once again prohibit abortion if the high court clears the way, "purple-ish" states, like Colorado, will be the new battleground.

"The anti-abortion movement knows this is a moment of opportunity everywhere, not just red states," said Ziegler, who saw Colorado's failed 22-week abortion ban as a litmus test for how voters in the state would react to a post-Roe environment.

But even how to prohibit abortion may prove thorny and vastly different from state to state, said Ziegler. There are many divides within the anti-abortion rights movement — including different beliefs on exceptions for victims of rape and whether to criminalize abortion patients themselves — which complicates how conservative state legislatures might ban the procedure if given the opportunity, she said.

"These ballot issues show you this is very much a live issue," Ziegler said.

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