In Vermont, Voters Could Make Abortion a Constitutional Right

In Vermont, Voters Could Make Abortion a Constitutional Right

In Vermont, Voters Could Make Abortion a Constitutional Right

This November, the state could become one of the first in the country to ratify a constitutional amendment declaring a right to personal reproductive autonomy.

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On a bright September afternoon, a group of eight women gather in a Wendy’s parking lot in the Vermont city of Rutland. They’re trying to break ground for abortion access in a place where you might think it doesn’t matter, given the state’s lack of legal restrictions. But if these canvassers succeed, Vermont could become one of the first states in the country to ratify a constitutional amendment declaring a right to personal reproductive autonomy.

It’s just one way this midterm election will make history on abortion rights.

No one’s quite sure what happens when you hold a midterm election four months after the Supreme Court erases a civil right. Ballot initiatives like Vermont’s will be the clearest sign of how voters feel about the loss of legal abortion. California and Michigan will consider measures like Vermont’s that would declare an affirmative constitutional right to reproductive freedom. The stakes are highest in Michigan because of the state’s 1931 abortion ban, which has been blocked by a court for now, but could go back into effect if a higher court reverses that ruling. Meanwhile, Kentucky, and Montana voters are considering measures that seek to undermine abortion access—Kentucky’s amendment would make permanent the state’s ban on abortion by declaring that the state Constitution doesn’t protect abortion rights, while Montana’s “born-alive” initiative is so sweeping that opponents warn it could potentially force doctors to try to resuscitate very prematurely born infants against the will of their parents.

The impact of abortion will be felt far beyond this record-setting number of direct votes on the issue. The number of women registering has surged in states like Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Ohio. Democratic candidates have spent a record $124 million on abortion-related ads, the best of which don’t just capitalize on Republican extremism but share personal stories, invoke reproductive justice, and even show footage of a candidate giving birth. But the pundits will tell you that abortion reached its high point as a political issue in the summer after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and that for many voters, it’s now “in the rearview mirror,” as Nate Cohn said on a recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily.

OK, dude.

What Cohn and other pundits miss is that something bigger than a blue wave is forming—and the volunteers I met in Vermont are part of it. Women and young people are organizing, pouring into political activity, many of them for the first time. The people I spoke with see themselves as part of a marathon fight to win not just abortion access but also economic and racial justice. They understand that this work starts at home—even if you live in Vermont.

Proponents of the reproductive liberty amendment include not just obvious players like Planned Parenthood of Vermont Action Fund but also Migrant Justice—a grassroots organization that works with farmworkers who sustain Vermont’s dairy industry. Organizer Thelma Gómez, who once lived in a barn without a bathroom while working long days for less than minimum wage, told me she’s facilitating powerful conversations within the farmworker community about the need to speak up for abortion rights. She supports the reproductive liberty amendment as part of a wider struggle to advance the rights of working-class women.

“Imagine, the women who are working on these farms, in bad conditions, in bad housing,” Gómez told me, speaking in Spanish. “How do we connect these issues of bad housing, low salaries, the fact that many people are undocumented…and then on top of that we add in the fact that when someone is pregnant, they can’t access that right?”

“Women’s rights don’t advance without a more general struggle,” she said.

On the September day in Rutland, the volunteer canvassers I follow up a hill in a neighborhood of ranch houses and white colonials are hardy Vermonters whose routine includes 25-mile bike rides and folk dancing. Every time I pause to talk with a voter, I have to run to catch up. Pat Hunter, 75, tucks pamphlets into door handles when no one answers. Judy Stern, 71, a self-described Type A personality, takes the lead on pitching voters who open the door. She rattles off the rights encompassed in the amendment in the order she’s been trained to use: contraception, the right to choose or refuse sterilization, to get pregnant when you want, and to have an abortion when you need to. Putting abortion last has fooled no one.

“The abortion thing?” a woman asks, sitting on her wide front porch. She signs a pledge to vote for the amendment, saying she has long felt that it’s a woman’s right. But she tells me she’s not in favor of what opponents call “late-term abortions.” In a state where more than 70 percent of people support the legal right to abortion, anti-abortion campaigners have seized on the false claim that the amendment would allow abortions up until the day of birth—even though, as a spokesperson with the anti-abortion campaign admitted to me in an interview, that claim “may be hyperbole.”

Three-quarters of Vermonters said they would support the amendment in a recent poll, so it’s not surprising that most people who answer the door seem supportive. But Stern and Hunter encounter a woman who hasn’t made up her mind yet, a man doing yard work who thinks they should only let women vote on it—which, Stern quips, women are in fact likely to do—and a few people who say they are against abortion. Hunter presses one of the abortion opponents on how the amendment would ensure access to other important services, like contraception; but he says he and his wife are too old to have to worry about that anymore. At one house, a woman who can’t hear the canvassers over her lawn mower seems grumpy about being interrupted until she notices Stern’s white “Bans off our bodies” T-shirt.” She signs the pledge to support the amendment. “Absolutely, and we are 100 percent registered,” another woman tells them; her husband, working outside in a Harley Davidson sweatshirt, echoes her enthusiasm. “Ladies, you don’t have to worry about me,” a third woman says, standing outside a home where two kids are playing.

Outside a ranch house, the canvassers approach a woman riding a sit-mower.

“I’m voting with you,” she assures them.

The canvassers move on, but I linger to talk with the woman. She’s doesn’t want her name connected to the story, so I’ll call her Ellen. When I ask her why she’s voting for the amendment, she tells me she and her husband had to make a “heartbreaking” decision to terminate a pregnancy after her water broke early. “People need to understand that this isn’t black and white,” she said. “There’s so much gray that goes into that decision.”

How much of an issue will abortion be in the midterms? The answer lies behind doors like Ellen’s. Stories like hers are hard to measure in polls or in the outcome of one election. But there are early signs—from a surge in interest in down-ballot races to a rise in activism by young people—that outrage over the fall of Roe is being channeled into long-term organizing.

One of the most promising early impacts of the Dobbs decision on electoral politics is that it’s forcing progressives to finally focus on down-ballot races. These were once solidly the domain of conservatives. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition said in 1996. Today, right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty are using school boards to wage aggressive attacks on racial justice, or what they call “critical race theory.” But progressives are paying more attention to these races, especially after Dobbs.

“It has been so amazing to watch how many more people are engaged,” Virginia Kase Solomón, CEO of the League of Women Voters, told me, adding that so many people have enlisted lately in the league’s corps of watchdogs to observe local county and city meetings that they’ve had to add more trainings.

“The uptick in people who want to engage in our observer corps was astounding,” Solomón said. This surge of interest in local politics is “not a silver lining. It’s been a gold lining.”

But it will take time for this surge to result in a wave of victories for Democrats. Building state power when Republican legislatures have gerrymandered so many districts into lost causes will take more than one election cycle. Even in progressive states like Vermont, the effort to pass the ballot initiative began in 2018; the process to amend the Constitution takes years.

“It’s not enough to just go out and vote. It’s about civically engaging in the political process in a more meaningful way,” Solomón told me. “Maybe this is the step back that we all need to remind ourselves of the importance of our local elections.”

Amanda Brown Lierman disputes the idea that abortion’s salience as a political issue was a flash in the pan. “There is a Dobbs voter; and we need to be talking about the Dobbs voter,” Lierman, executive director of Supermajority, told me. Her group works to mobilize women voters around a core set of values, including bodily autonomy.

The “Dobbs voter” is someone so disgusted with the Republican Party’s engineering of the end of Roe that they’re ready to consider voting Democrat.

“They have voted their entire life as a Republican,” and might not describe themselves as pro-choice, Lierman said, but “they will vote against power-hungry men having control over our lives.” Messaging around “freedom” and “liberty” and government overreach in women’s lives can reach these voters, as happened in Kansas, where Republicans and Independents helped bring about a landslide victory for abortion rights. But longer term, Lierman sees an opportunity to use the single issue of abortion to bring these voters into progressive politics.

“This is a coalition-building moment, because we can engage women who are unlikely suspects; they’re certainly not being targeted by Democratic candidates,” Lierman said. Women who might buy into Republican fearmongering on crime and “critical race theory,” for example, might be willing to engage on the issue of abortion. Groups like Supermajority are trying to bring voters into the progressive fold by educating them about what’s at stake on abortion rights and connecting their lived experiences to the political moment. If these efforts succeed, the impact could extend far beyond the midterms, Lierman said.

It’s common wisdom that the economy is a top issue for voters right now, which means that Democrats campaigning on abortion need to be clear that abortion is an economic issue, too—one inseparable from wages and health insurance. Advocates say that young voters already understand this connection.

In May, after the leaked Supreme Court decision overturning Roe, the group United for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE) polled young voters about the issues most important to them. The top three were: inflation/cost of living, abortion, and racial justice. Two of the top concerns young people voiced about limits on abortion access were its impact on the poor and people of color. URGE has seen the on-the-ground impact of that concern. “We have seen more and more young people who want to be canvassers, who want to be part of campaigns, who want to make sure everyone in their neighborhood knows what’s at stake with this election,” Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of URGE, told me.

Young people aren’t the only ones talking to their neighbors about the stakes of this election. Back in the Wendy’s parking lot in Rutland, the canvassers gather to debrief after their shift. Marcy Tanger, wearing a colorful sweater and wide-brimmed hat, stands with her daughter, Joanna. Joanna, 37, is there because of her mother’s story, and her grandmother’s story. When Marcy was a child, she came down one morning to find her mother lying on the floor in a pool of blood, suffering from an illegal abortion. Marcy and didn’t understand what was happening; her mother told her it was a heavy period. When Marcy wanted to call an ambulance, but her mother wouldn’t let her. So Marcy skipped school to hold her mother’s hand. Her mother survived. Joanna was in college when her mother told her that story; after she learned about what had happened to her grandmother, she skipped out on schoolwork to travel to D.C. to attend an abortion rights march with her mom. Marcy herself suffered an ectopic pregnancy that filled her abdomen with blood; ending the pregnancy saved her life. She wrote about that experience for the news outlet VT Digger and has used it as part of a campaign to convince conservative men in her town to support the reproductive liberty amendment.

“I ask very nicely if they mind if I send them the articles,” Tanger tells me.

Like much of political campaigning, Tanger’s work is a long and thankless endeavor, where results are hard to see. But one day, one of the men she’d been working on came by Tanger’s house. He was there for something unrelated, but Tanger used the opportunity to talk with him about the abortion referendum. He went home with a lawn sign.

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