Election night 2014 was a somber one for family planning supporters. In both the House and Senate, family planning opponents increased their numbers. Where do we stand now, and what’s going to happen over the next two years? One thing we know for sure: We are going to have to fight to preserve the progress we’ve made.
One Senate Seat Still Undecided, Some Losses Known
As of the print deadline for this issue, the final makeup of the U.S. Senate is not yet known. In Louisiana, since no candidate reached the 50 percent threshold required by state law, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) will meet her leading opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), in a run-off election on December 6.
What we do know, however, is that at least two leading voices in support of family planning were defeated in their quest for reelection. In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) lost to State House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), and in Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) was defeated by Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO/4). Both Hagan and Udall have been strong supporters of family planning and tireless advocates for women and families here in the U.S. and around the world. Their loss is a loss for vulnerable people everywhere.
Senators-elect Tillis and Gardner both begin their terms with records that make family planning supporters understandably wary. Tillis is perhaps best known for his role in passing a number of anti-choice measures by attaching them to a motorcycle-safety bill. He is also on the record as having stated that he believes states have the authority to outlaw birth control. Gardner has a long record in the U.S. House as an opponent of family planning and a supporter of Colorado’s fetal personhood initiatives. Both men worked hard to moderate their image in their statewide campaigns, with Tillis coming out in favor of over-the-counter access to birth control and Gardner disavowing his support for personhood (although he remains a co-sponsor of a similar federal bill). We hope that as they begin their Senate terms both will retain the more moderate positions they took during their campaigns.
Anti-Choice Amendments Fail in Colorado and North Dakota, Pass in Tennessee
For the third time since 2008, Colorado voters considered (and then soundly defeated) a “personhood amendment” designed to grant fertilized eggs legal protections. This time around, rather than attempting to pass an explicitly anti-abortion amendment, advocates used a slightly different tactic: adding “unborn human beings” to the definition of “persons” in the Colorado civil and criminal code. Fortunately, voters recognized this for what it was—the same old anti-choice amendment dressed in new clothes—and rejected it 65-35.
Colorado was not the only state where voters faced a personhood amendment. North Dakota voters also rejected a measure that would have added the language, “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected,” to the state constitution. That initiative failed by a margin of 64-36.
Unfortunately, the outcome was not so positive in Tennessee. Abortion providers there have historically been protected from many of the hostile regulations that have closed clinics in so many states across the country. These rules (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, also known as TRAP laws), which require things like onerous waiting periods, medically unnecessary ultrasounds, and elaborate surgical facilities for simple outpatient procedures, are generally an attempt to make abortion so logistically difficult and so expensive that clinics are forced to close. Several common TRAP laws actually have been passed by the state legislature only to be struck down by the Tennessee State Supreme Court, which found that language in the state constitution protected a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.
Voters were asked to determine whether to amend the Tennessee State Constitution to state that:
“Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”
The extreme language of the amendment, specifically empowering legislators to make laws that contain no exceptions, provoked strong backlash. Planned Parenthood and other groups opposed to the amendment launched intensive advocacy campaigns in an effort to defeat the measure, which ultimately passed 53-47.
State legislators are already publicly mulling over which restrictions they plan to enact first. On the agenda are waiting periods, ultrasound requirements, and even restrictions to prevent women from traveling to Tennessee from other states to obtain abortions.
What Do We Expect From the New Congress?
It’s always difficult to predict exactly what a new Congress will decide to prioritize, but there are a couple things family planning advocates and supporters should be watching for:
A Senate vote on a 20-week abortion ban
Back in June of 2013, the House of Representatives passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, banning abortions after 20 weeks gestation based on the medically disputed theory that a fetus can feel pain at that point. The bill contains no exceptions for cases where fetal anomalies are discovered after 20 weeks or for pregnancies that endanger the health of the women. Current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to bring the bill to the floor in the Senate. However, Senator McConnell (R-KY), during a speech last year at the National Right to Life Convention, promised that if he became majority leader he would bring the bill up for a vote, and we fully expect him to do so once he’s in control.
More attacks on the Affordable Care Act and the birth control benefit
The House of Representatives has already voted dozens of times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and there are several senators who have been clamoring for their chance to do the same. We expect that they will get the opportunity, and that the ACA and the birth control benefit will be the target of more attempts to repeal the modification.
Fortunately, no matter what happens in Congress, President Obama still holds the veto pen. And there aren’t enough votes in the Senate to override a presidential veto on the issues we follow. There is no question that the next two years are going to be difficult. But we have an ally in the White House and thousands of supporters across the country. We also have millions of people around the world counting on all of us. It’s a fight we have to win.