Abortion rights play out in midterm elections across US

58% of voters in Alabama voted for the ballot measure, and the vote was tighter in West Virginia — about 52% to 48% in favour

Washington: With the fate of Roe vs Wade hanging in the balance, Tuesday night’s midterm elections brought high stakes for both sides of the abortion debate.

Anti-abortion advocates gained clear legislative victories in Alabama and West Virginia, where voters passed constitutional amendments paving the way to ban abortion if the new conservative consensus on the Supreme Court overturns the landmark 1973 ruling that outlawed restrictions on the procedure before the foetus is viable.

In West Virginia, voters passed a measure amending the state’s constitution to say that “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or the funding of abortion.” It also banned state Medicaid insurance from covering abortion. In Alabama, a ballot measure passed assigning legal rights to foetuses and excluding the right to abortion from the state constitution.

Fifty-eight per cent of voters in Alabama voted for the ballot measure, and the vote was tighter in West Virginia — about 52 per cent to 48 per cent in favour.

But in Oregon, a ballot measure prohibiting the use of public money to fund most abortions was defeated, rejected by 64 per cent of voters. And for abortion rights activists, such as Planned Parenthood, these ballot measures were anomalies in an otherwise promising night that brought Democratic wins in gubernatorial and state legislature races across the country.

“Far more elected officials today than yesterday are going to be working to protect access to abortion and reproductive health in this country,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president and chief experience officer for Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

If the clock was ticking toward midnight following Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Laguens said, “unequivocally it ticked away from midnight” on Tuesday night.

Planned Parenthood counted at least seven state legislative chambers that flipped to Democratic, pro-abortion-rights majorities, in Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, Maine, New York and two in New Hampshire. And several key toss-up states elected Democratic governors, dodging Republican candidates who had threatened to restrict access to abortion.

Winning on back of abortion

Why should we be paying attention to the role of these state-level races in the abortion debate? If the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs Wade, state lawmakers and governors could have the power to enact major changes in access to abortion.

“For decades, states have been the battleground on abortion rights,” said Emily Nash, policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy advocacy group. “If the Supreme Court rolls back abortion rights, states will have even more leeway to undermine abortion rights.”

Abortion rights activists touted wins for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.

In Kansas, for example, former governor Sam Brownback had signed into law sharp restrictions on abortion, and Republican candidate Kris Kobach vowed to support a constitutional amendment making clear Kansas does not include the right to an abortion. On Tuesday night, Laura Kelly, a Democrat endorsed by Planned Parenthood, was elected governor.

In Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker’s cuts to Planned Parenthood funding caused five health centres to close, voters elected Tony Evers as their new governor.

Still, anti-abortion advocates touted strong wins in the Senate, where three Republican candidates who describe themselves as strong opponents of abortion flipped seats in Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana.

According to the National Review, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List spent nearly $30 million (Dh110 million) this season to support anti-abortion GOP senators. Talking about abortion more and more explicitly has been a winning strategy for some in the GOP in the past few years, the conservative news site reported this week, despite mainstream GOP advice to stay the course down the middle.

Religious debate angle

Abortion rights advocates say there is evidence this year that religious conservatives are treating the topic of abortion a little more critically in deciding how to vote. The ballot measures in West Virginia and Alabama passed with narrow margins, they said. And some religious voters appear to be weighing abortion against other issues, such as immigration, in determining what qualifies as pro-life, possibly adding to the wins of Democrats to national offices in conservative areas such as Kansas and Oklahoma.

“I think the religious community is becoming more sophisticated in the wide range of what it means to be ‘for life.’” said Doug Pagitt, a co-founder of the progressive Christian advocacy group Vote Common Good.

About a quarter of voters were Catholic, according to network exit polling from CNN. Of that group, the vote was split: 50 per cent voted for House Democrats and 49 per cent for Republicans. In 2014, they supported Republicans by nine points, 54 per cent to 45 per cent.

Among the 2 per cent of voters who are Jewish, 79 per cent voted for Democrats compared with 17 per cent for Republicans, wider than the 66 per cent to 33 per cent margin in favour of Democrats in 2014.

Using the religiosity metric of worship service attendance, voters who go to services weekly or more supported Republican House candidates 58 per cent to 40 per cent, the same as 2014.

This year saw left-leaning voters, including ones who are religious, pay attention anew to the topic of abortion. A recent Pew Research Centre poll said 61 per cent of Democrats said abortion was “very important” to their vote this year, up from 38 per cent in 2008. Forty-four per cent of GOP voters told Pew abortion was “very important.”

Meanwhile, white evangelicals — who are now the most opposed in the country to abortion access — voted generally as they have in past elections. According to CNN’s exit polls, they made up about a quarter of House voters. In those races, they voted for GOP candidates by a margin of 75 to 22 per cent. In 2014, they went GOP by a similar 78 to 20 margin.

Tim Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian advocacy group, said the fact that evangelical Christians continue to make up such a big slice of the electorate — 26 per cent, as they did in the 2014 midterms, according to CNN exit polls — itself is testimony to the drive to fight abortion because the topic is such a high priority for those voters.

There was anecdotal evidence that conservative voters were motivated to come to the polls by the fight over Kavanaugh, he said, which was a dispute largely about abortion.

“When you talk the Supreme Court, the number one issue about the Supreme Court for evangelicals is the life question,” Head said. “It remains on the boiler at all times.”

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