Party Shift, Ballot Issues Boost Abortion Rights
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
While the Supreme Court is considering restricting abortions, pro-choice forces are savoring some big wins at the polls. The biggest, a resounding rejection of what would have been the nation's most sweeping state abortion ban.
NPR's Julie Rovner reports on the changing abortion landscape.
JULIE ROVNER: When the South Dakota legislature passed a ban on abortion in February with no exceptions for cases of rape, incest or the health of the pregnant woman, it was not designed to go before the voters. Rather, it was intended as a court challenge to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
But rather than filing suit to stop the law, abortion rights backers gathered enough signatures to get the measure on the November ballot, a calculated risk in a very anti-abortion state. Yet after an expensive and often heated campaign voters decisively rejected it 56 to 44 percent. Leslie Unrue, who headed the campaign to keep the law, said many voters were confused by having to vote yes to preserve the ban.
Ms. LESLIE UNRUE: Usually it goes with no means no to abortion, but we had a yes. So a yes for abortion was confusing to people.
ROVNER: But Nancy Keenan, President of NAYROL Pro Choice America(ph) says the voters of South Dakota knew exactly what they were doing.
Ms. NANCY KEENAN (NAYROL Pro Choice America): They fought back against a political intrusion into their personal and private decisions and in addition to that, this is a wake up call to other politicians in states across the country that the American pro choice majority will not allow an assault on Roe v. Wade go unanswered.
ROVNER: And Keenan says the win in South Dakota was just one of many.
Ms. KEENEN: We've had pro choice pick-ups in Congress in Ohio and Pennsylvania, in Florida and Arizona.
ROVNER: As well as defeat of ballot measures that would have required parental notifications for minors to get abortions in California and Oregon. But Daniel McConchie of Americans United for Life says the South Dakota result, in particular, is not as big a setback for pro lifers as it might appear.
Mr. DANIEL MCCONCHIE (Americans United for Life): It's a very, as they say, a very red state. It's a very pro-life state. This was just a situation that it was not so much a referendum on abortion but a referendum on a strategy on how to try to overturn Roe.
ROVNER: McConchie also says that last night losses don't signal a national trend in favor of abortion rights.
Mr. MCCONCHIE: It doesn't necessarily speak that we have significant problems or anything across the country. I think that these are relatively isolated circumstances that each one of them had their kind of local dynamics.
ROVNER: Probably the biggest lost for pro-lifers is the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House. The Republican led House had been the major launching pad for a long list of abortion restrictions. Still, McConchie says the new Democratic majority opens up other possibilities for pro-life groups because many of the newly elected Democrats are relatively conservative.
Mr. MCCONCHIE: This is a real chance for the Democrats to kind of put some action behind their words. You know, for two years the Democrats have been playing to more of an open tent idea saying that you know, abortion should be rare.
ROVNER: Indeed McConchie and NAYROL's Nancy Keenan agree that both sides will be looking for common ground.
Ms. KEENEN: Now is the time to end the attacks. Unify behind a common sense way to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion.
ROVNER: Even Leslie Unrue, who headed the losing effort last night in South Dakota, sees a silver lining. As a result of the campaign she says 180 doctors in the state have offered to provide free care to women with unintended pregnancies.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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