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How Americans can secure abortion rights when courts and politicians won't

Enshrining reproductive rights in state constitutions through ballot measures will guarantee the protection of reproductive health.
State Sen. Wendy Davis
Wendy Davis, then a state senator, begins a filibuster of an abortion rights bill at the state Capitol in Austin, Texas, on June 25, 2013.Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc. / Corbis via Getty Images file

Almost 10 years ago, I stood on the floor of the Texas state Senate in front of my colleagues, wired and tired. For just under 13 hours, I filibustered to stop a disastrous piece of legislation that threatened to devastate reproductive health care in Texas. 

That day was a test of physical and mental stamina, but it paled in comparison to the struggle I knew people across the state would face if that draconian anti-abortion bill became law. We stopped the bill from passing that night, but it ultimately did go through. When the Supreme Court overturned the law three years later, it felt like vindication.

Because ballot initiatives let voters take matters into their own hands, they must be a central part of the comprehensive strategy to protect abortion rights.

But now all abortion rights are at risk. A recently leaked draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito overturns Roe v. Wade, the case securing the right to an abortion. The reversal is expected to stand when the Supreme Court officially hands down its decision this summer. 

In the wake of that ruling, we will have to fight like never before against state laws sure to proliferate. But unfortunately, when we’ve previously challenged these laws in Republican-led state legislatures and in court, we’ve lost. It’s time to recognize that we may need a new weapon. 

There’s a path forward in the states: If the Supreme Court does indeed overturn Roe, enshrining reproductive rights in state constitutions via ballot measures will guarantee the protection of reproductive health care for years to come, particularly in states where Republicans control the legislature. Because ballot initiatives let voters take matters into their own hands, they must be a central part of the comprehensive strategy to protect abortion rights wherever they are allowed.

If you put important policies like this before the people, I am confident they will choose progress. A Washington Post-ABC poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe decisions on abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor. A Gallup poll also found that 80 percent of the American public believe abortion should be legal at least under certain circumstances. 

That’s the thinking behind a coalition, which includes Michigan’s ACLU and Planned Parenthood’s advocacy arm, that’s pushing a ballot measure in the state. It would amend the state constitution to affirm that every resident has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom, including birth control, abortion, prenatal care and the choice to have children. 

The campaign is working to collect more than 425,000 valid signatures before July 11, and if it’s successful, the measure will appear on ballots for the November elections. A simple majority of more than 50 percent is needed for this to pass, and there’s good reason to believe it will: Results from a recent WDIV/Detroit News survey found 67.3 percent of Michigan voters want Roe v. Wade left in place, while only 19.1 percent of voters want it struck down. 

If Roe is struck down and new legal protections aren’t in place, a 1931 Michigan law that makes abortion illegal and threatens doctors who provide abortion services with prison could go back into effect. The citizen-led initiative would not only protect a broad range of reproductive health care but ensure that no one goes to prison for providing it. 

What happens in Michigan could be the way forward. This groundbreaking ballot measure could set the stage to codify Roe v. Wade’s protections in states across the country. 

It’s not a stretch to think that purple states like Michigan and even some red states will back abortion rights in referendums.The progressive Fairness Project, whose efforts I’ve recently joined, is a testament to this, winning 23 of its 24 ballot measure campaigns to raise wages, to expand health care access, to secure more paid time off and to achieve other life-changing policies for more than 18 million people by its tally. They’ve won in red and purple states year after year because when you remove partisan labels, progressive policies are popular. Abortion rights are no different.

There are 23 states around the country that have secure citizen-initiated ballot measure procedures, allowing voters to enact legislation or constitutional amendments themselves. In a small number of those places, like California and Oregon, abortion rights have already been statutorily protected. For the remaining states, it will be a powerful tool as advocates press for abortion protection in states like Ohio, Arkansas, Nebraska and Montana. These are places where a ballot measure may be the only tool available since elected officials are unlikely to act.   

I’ve chosen abortion in my life — for a badly wanted but not medically viable pregnancy. I never thought I would face that decision, and I know firsthand how important it was for me to make it with my family and my doctor. No legislator had a right to make it for me. Everyone should have the ability to make such personal decisions without the worry of political interference. 

I also know what it looks like to fight these regressive laws. I’ve won, lost and seen bad laws overturned. Unfortunately, today we face a decision that strikes down a long-held right that generations of women have relied on. Right now, progressives need to combat the horrific Supreme Court ruling on the horizon. If you’re as mad as I am, support the ballot measures that will protect women’s reproductive health care once and for all.