Voters in multiple US states passed measures to enshrine the right to abortion during Tuesday’s midterm elections, or knocked down attempts to further curtail such rights, in a stinging rebuke to the crackdown on reproductive freedoms taking place across the US.
In Michigan, abortion rights campaigners declared victory on a ballot initiative looking to secure a constitutional right to abortion, meaning the state will now escape the imposition of a 1931 abortion ban that was on the books.
The state is the first in the US to fight off a pre-existing abortion ban with a referendum, called Proposal 3, in a move that campaigners across the country see as a possible road map for other states.
“Proposal 3’s passage marks an historic victory for abortion access in our state and in our country – and Michigan has paved the way for future efforts to restore the rights and protections of Roe v Wade nationwide,” Darci McConnell, the communication director for Reproductive Freedom For All, wrote in a statement, announcing the news after it was called by ABC and NBC.
The news broke as other US states too saw victories for abortion rights initiatives.
Vermont became the first state in America to protect abortion rights in its state constitution just before Michigan, calling their result on Tuesday after its voters resoundingly backed a ballot initiative by a huge margin. And in California, voters were on track to overwhelmingly pass a measure to enshrine into the state’s constitution the right to an abortion and contraception.
“Vermont voters made history tonight,” said the Vermont for Reproductive Liberty Ballot Committee, which campaigned for the amendment, according to local news. All votes had not yet been counted at 11pm ET, but the yes campaign was leading by 77% to 22%.
“Vermonters support reproductive freedom in all four corners of the state … and they believe that our reproductive decisions are ours to make without interference from politicians,” the committee said in a statement.
In Vermont, the outcome was always expected, in a New England state so pro-choice that even the Republican governor backed Proposal 5. The proposal, brought by pro-choice advocates, means the constitution now determines that an “individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course”.
California’s Proposition 1, meanwhile, was positioned as a direct response to the US supreme court’s decision that overturned decades of established access and thrust the country into turmoil. Voters’ decisive support for Prop 1 will further enhance the state’s reputation as a haven for reproductive care just as restrictions – and political divisions – deepen across the country.
The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom – who won re-election on Tuesday with a large majority – joined in the celebrations at a Prop 1 rally.
“Governor Newsom made it clear that he wants California to be visible as a haven for people seeking reproductive healthcare and Proposition 1 is part of that,” said the constitutional law professor Cary Franklin, who also serves as faculty director of the Center on Reproductive Health, Law, and Policy at the University of California Los Angeles. “It will get media attention and people will be made more aware that California is a place they can go.”
The measure had been expected to easily pass, and analysts said support for reproductive rights could draw even more women and young people to the polls, which could play positively for Democrats in California’s conservative pockets.
These wins deliver more blows for Republicans who are increasingly finding that, when put to a vote, Americans frequently do not agree with a sweeping agenda to dismantle abortion rights.
So far, the anti-abortion movement has relied on judges, state houses and Republican lawmakers to curtail reproductive rights.
But since the supreme court dismantled the constitutional right to abortion on 24 June, pro-choice advocates are increasingly looking to ballot initiatives as a way of shoring up rights. The anti-abortion movement suffered a huge blow over the summer when Kansas – a usually reliably red state – slammed down a proposal brought by the Republicans, looking to confirm there was no right to abortion in the state constitution.
In Michigan the mood was already jubilant at the yes campaign’s watch party before they called the result, with voters screaming loudly, banging on tables and whooping in support of local voters, doctors and speakers from the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.
“My name is Nicholas, and I live in Ingham county,” one campaigner took to the stage to say. Speaking about him and his girlfriend, he added: “We knocked on over 1,500 doors and walked over a hundred miles, talking to neighbors who – like the rest of us here – agree this is a fundamental right,” to screams and cheers.
Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan later added: “We are living in a time like no other. The US supreme court did something they have never done: They reversed Roe. They tried it. And as such, we needed a campaign like none other. This campaign turned out to be just that.”
The biggest surprise was in Kentucky, where voters rejected a ballot measure aimed at denying any constitutional protections for abortion. That referendum was brought by a Republican-dominated legislature expecting a win, who earlier this year imposed a near-total ban on abortions.
The key sponsor of the abortion ban and the ballot proposal, former congressman Joe Fischer, was running for a judicial seat on Kentucky’s supreme court this election – which he has not won.
For the meantime, Kentucky’s abortion ban will remain in place. But Fischer’s loss is more good news for pro-choice campaigners: as the ban is being challenged in the state supreme court on 15 November. And although judges are generally not supposed to be swayed by public opinion, the victory will certainly, in theory, make it harder for the sweeping ban to stand up in court.
Madeline Dyer, a former counselor for abortion patients at one of the two remaining clinics in Kentucky, EMW Women’s Surgical Center, which has had its doors shuttered since 24 June, said it was a relief to finally have the result over with.
“It’s a little surreal, I’ve been so consumed by worrying about this amendment for months,” she said. “But I’m elated Kentuckians used their voice and showed politicians that they don’t want a ban on abortion. We’re showing we care for each other. It’s such a heart-warming reassurance – because when it really comes down to it, it’s just not popular, to have an outright ban on abortion,” she said.
Rachel Sweet of Protect Kentucky Access said the outcome was a “historic win” against “government overreach” into the personal medical decisions of Kentuckians.