The results of the midterm elections in the USA on Tuesday were all over the place: Democrats took the House, but Republicans actually grew in in the Senate. Yes, Democrats will now be able to put more checks on the Trump administration, but Republicans will probably continue to push through more hyper-conservative judicial appointments, which could impact the shape of the US for generations. It was a huge night for women candidates – particularly women of colour – but there were also some sad losses in high-profile races. All in all, kind of a mixed bag! And that extends to what Tuesday’s election meant for access to safe, legal abortion in the USA.
Let’s start with the good news: The midterms saw some really positive developments around abortion access. Because threats to reproductive freedom will likely come from the federal level, it may ultimately be left up to states to protect those rights. And for the most part on Tuesday, they did: Oregon voters overwhelmingly voted down Measure 106, which would have barred tax money from helping to fund elective abortions (the state currently spends about $2 million [about R28 000 000] per year on abortion, according to Willamette Week).
‘We know that Oregon has always carried the torch of nondiscrimination and equal access to abortion services,’ Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, tells Marie Claire. ‘It’s indicative of the anti-choice [movement]’s overreach that they tried to roll back that access, particularly to poor women and women of colour.’
Likewise, the number of governor’s races won by openly pro-choice Democrats is a hopeful sign that voters want to protect reproductive rights. Among the gubernatorial wins were Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Michelle Lujan-Grisham in New Mexico, Laura Kelly in Kansas, Jared Polis in Colorado, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Janet Mills in Maine, and Steve Sisolak in Nevada.
‘These are crucial wins to make sure we’re [securing] states that will be oases of access for women, if and when a Kavanaugh Court actually starts to either erode or straight-up end federal protections for legal abortion,’ says Ilyse Hogue. ‘Some of what I was hearing from the Nevada women that were powering campaigns is that they also recognise that they have a responsibility to women in neighbouring states who don’t have similar protections and access and who are already crossing borders to get the reproductive healthcare they need.’
Now for the bad news: Elsewhere, two measures passed that seriously restrict reproductive health access for women in their respective states. A piece of West Virginia legislation, Amendment 1 – also known as the ‘No Constitutional Right to Abortion’ amendment – will add a line to the state’s Constitution that specifies ‘nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.’ Though seemingly small, that single line can prevent lower-income women, particularly those on Medicaid, from seeking an abortion, and could provide an in for future laws that seek to restrict abortion access. The new amendment also makes sure that there are no exceptions, even in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother.
And in Alabama, Amendment 2 would add a line to the state Constitution that would make it state policy to ‘recognise and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life.’ Like West Virginia, it would also explain that nowhere in the state Constitution is it required to fund an abortion.
‘These measures were clearly designed to mislead voters and will now undermine a woman’s right to access safe, legal abortion,’ Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood Action Fund Executive Vice President, said in a statement. ‘Politicians will stop at nothing to eliminate access to healthcare for communities who already face too many challenges.’
Certainly, there will be challenges to these amendments: Roe v. Wade guarantees that abortion is protected by the US Constitution. But with an increasingly conservative Supreme Court and a deeply anti-choice majority in the Senate (with very few exceptions), a challenge of Roe that goes to the Supreme Court could spell disaster for the landmark 1973 decision – and a woman’s federally protected right to choose.
The fight to defend reproductive freedom in the US is only just beginning, but it’s clear from the midterm results that not only is abortion access an issue that inspires a lot of passion, but it also has a ton of support throughout the country. If pro-choice voters work as a coalition, we may be able to save Roe from the threats it has yet to face.
Written by Cady Drell