HARRISBURG, Pa. – Republicans and their anti-abortion allies, who suffered a series of defeats in ballot questions in states across the political spectrum last year, are changing tactics as new legislative sessions and the new election season start.
In states where citizens have direct access to the ballot, Republicans are considering ways to prevent another loss in an abortion-rights referendum.
In some states, Republicans are considering exemptions to sweeping bans or looking at ways to prevent abortions besides trying to roll back the number of weeks during which an abortion is allowed.
To be sure, abortion restrictions have seen some success in a few Republican-controlled states.
West Virginia and Indiana passed laws to ban abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling overturning a nationwide constitutional protection for the procedure.
South Carolina and Montana lawmakers are also trying to ban abortion — or more heavily restrict it — despite a court-ordered right to privacy that currently protects a right to abortion in those states.
But in a number of states, the battle over abortion rights is fluid and influenced by what voters had to say last year, when Kentucky, Montana and Kansas rejected anti-abortion measures on ballots and Michigan, California and Vermont approved abortion rights amendments.
In politically divided Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers have stalled their push for a constitutional amendment that would declare there is no constitutional right to an abortion or for taxpayer support for an abortion.
The wording is nearly identical to a measure that failed in Kentucky, and the experience in Kansas last August told abortion opponents that it would be very difficult to win a statewide referendum, said Michael McMonagle, president of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania.
“We realized that if the referendum turns on the left's arguments that ‘these pro-lifers are trying to outlaw abortion,’ we’re going to get slaughtered," McMonagle said. “It will be the mushy middle people who will vote against the pro-life referendum.”
Rather, abortion opponents in Pennsylvania decided to wait to see the outcome of a pending court case where abortion clinics are asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a law that bans taxpayer funding for abortions.
A court decision that overturns the law — and allows the state to use public money for abortions — would give abortion opponents a stronger message and a more persuasive case with voters to help them succeed in a referendum, McMonagle said.
Elizabeth Nash, of the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, sees Republicans changing their approach in some states by trying to put up barriers to abortion pills, fund pregnancy programs or soften strict abortion bans.
As an example, Nash pointed to Tennessee, where a growing number of Republican lawmakers say the state’s abortion ban went too far. A bill to allow an abortion if necessary to save the mother's life passed a Senate subcommittee in February but faces uncertain prospects in the GOP-controlled Legislature, and with Republican Gov. Bill Lee should it reach his desk.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican, said polling data and discussions with Republican women persuaded him that the law should, at least, include an exception for the life of the mother.
“It’s a very delicate issue,” Sexton said, “but what you see is Republican women wanting exceptions.”
In Kansas, meanwhile, anti-abortion lawmakers recovering from their referendum defeat last August have dropped the idea of trying to ban abortion earlier in pregnancy. Kansas is one of the more permissive states, barring most abortions after the 22nd week.
For the moment, Kansas Republican legislators are aiming to provide financial help to centers that discourage abortion by offering free pregnancy and post-pregnancy services.
Elsewhere, officials at Planned Parenthood say several Republican-controlled states are taking steps to head off potential ballot questions that ask voters to enshrine abortion rights into state constitutions.
That dynamic is playing out in conservative Missouri.
It is one of 13 states where abortion is banned — largely by “trigger” laws that took effect after the high court overturned its landmark Roe v. Wade decision — and one of 22 where citizens have direct ballot access.
There, Republican state lawmakers are considering a handful of alternatives, including making it more difficult to amend the constitution by raising the threshold for voter approval from 50% to 60% in a referendum.
Republicans also floated their own proposal to amend the constitution to say that no provision in the constitution “shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion.”
In Republican-controlled Ohio, abortion opponents are gearing up to try to defeat what is expected to be the nation's next referendum to protect access to abortion.
Abortion remains legal in Ohio through 20 weeks, but courts may allow a near-complete ban on abortion approved by lawmakers in 2019.
To fight the referendum, a Republican state lawmaker is sponsoring a resolution to make it more difficult for voters to amend the constitution.
In a memo to colleagues, Rep. Brian Stewart wrote, “after decades of Republicans’ work to make Ohio a pro-life state, the Left intends to write abortion on demand into Ohio’s Constitution.”
Stewart’s measure drew support from Ohio Right to Life, whose leaders met with their philosophical allies in Kentucky, Kansas and Michigan to research why the movement had suffered losses in referendums in those states.
Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, said he is raising money, hiring campaign staff and intending to get out their message early in the state that just elected a slate of anti-abortion politicians to statewide offices in November.
“What we’re doing now is we’re creating a campaign operation to oppose what Planned Parenthood wants to do,” Gonidakis said. “And we’re going to hire campaign manager, media firms — we’re running this as if it’s a traditional campaign. You have to. They’re going to raise, by their own admission, probably $40 million. We’ve got to match them dollar for dollar. And we’ll do that.”
Associated Press writers Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Tennessee; Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana; Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio; and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.