The Contempt for Democracy Driving the Anti-Abortion Movement

The Contempt for Democracy Driving the Anti-Abortion Movement

The Contempt for Democracy Driving the Anti-Abortion Movement

As pro-choice advocates plan more statewide initiatives protecting abortion rights, opponents say victory lies in stopping citizens from voting on the issue directly.


In the wake of major abortion-rights victories in Michigan and Ohio, where majorities of voters enshrined abortion rights in the state Constitutions, and in Kansas and Kentucky, where voters rejected efforts to remove or prevent abortion rights from being included in the state constitution, the anti-abortion movement is mounting an aggressive campaign against such vox populi measures. Steven Aden, the chief legal officer of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life told Politico, “We don’t believe those rights should be subjected to majority vote.”

While many observers, including myself, have described Justice Samuel Alito’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade as returning the issue to the states, which it did, it’s worth noting, as this backlash mounts from the right, that what Alito specifically said was, “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” That’s why these right-wingers feel comfortable insisting abortion rights, or the lack thereof, should be left to state legislators, and not local voters.

In states where pro-choice voters are preparing new initiatives, including Florida, Nevada, and Arizona, local anti-abortion groups are mounting advertising campaigns, knocking on doors and holding rallies to urge their neighbors not to even sign petitions to put such measures on the ballot. In Missouri and Texas, conservative legislators are trying to raise the threshold at which such measures become law. Ohio conservatives tried that earlier this year and failed (and even now, they’re making up far-fetched theories for why a valid, just-enacted constitutional amendment should be ignored).

Constitutional amendments to protect abortion are already on the ballots for 2024 in Maryland and New York, where they are expected to pass. Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado are believed to have a good chance to get their initiatives on the ballot, and even pass them (though Nevada law would make voters weigh in again in 2026 even if they pass it next November). In red states, however, it’s a heavier lift.

“While conservatives celebrated the fall of Roe for returning the question of abortion rights to the people,” Politico reports, “these [anti-abortion] efforts are seen as an implicit admission that anti-abortion groups don’t believe they can win at the ballot box—even in red states—and that the best way to keep restrictions on the procedure is to keep voters from weighing in directly.” That sounds fair.

Some conservative groups have argued that the remaining states that allow citizen-led ballot initiative processes—there are 23—should get rid of them. Statewide initiatives once were seen as a conservative tool, especially in California, where Prop. 13 gutted property taxes in 1978, Prop. 187 denied social services to undocumented immigrants in 1994, and Prop. 209 abolished affirmative action in public education and public employment in 1996. But the tide has turned in recent years, when progressives around the country have used the tool in order to enact minimum wage hikes, legalize marijuana and protect abortion rights.

The combative Students for Life is running hard against pro-choice voter referenda, with language straight out of the post–Civil War Reconstruction, blaming out of state “carpetbaggers” for coming in “to get out the vote for Democrats,” said Kristi Hamrick, the chief policy strategist for Students for Life. “Just because someone shoves a clipboard in your face, you don’t have to sign.” In South Dakota, where a petition drive is underway, judges have ordered two counties to stop restricting gathering signatures near county courthouses.

Taking a page from their “sidewalk counseling” outside abortion clinics, the Nebraska Catholic Conference along with Florida Catholic groups are urging its members to harass those collecting signatures and make it harder. “If you encounter petitioners, charitably take up their time talking about the dangerous petition, to prevent other people from engaging and signing,” Nebraska executive director Tom Venzor advises.

In Florida, at least, where the tactics have been most widespread, there’s evidence that they’re somewhat effective. “We can see the decrease in the pace of verified signatures in the last three months,” one local leader told Politico.

Despite that tragic case of Texan Kate Cox—a pregnant mother with a fatally diseased fetus and pregnancy complications that could threaten her future fertility, who had to leave the state to get an abortion—Texas voters won’t be seeing a pro-choice initiative any time soon. Only the Texas legislature can put amendments on the ballot, and given the party’s strong hold on the legislature and governor’s office, that’s not about to happen. But the Cox case has heightened attention to the cruel and arbitrary patchwork of abortion laws women face across the 50 states.

That can’t help add to post-Dobbs momentum, whether behind ballot initiatives or pro-choice candidates. But the anti-abortion movement has no qualms against using antidemocratic measures to fight rising support for abortion rights, and the pro-choice movement will have to keep upping its game in order to keep winning.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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