Reproductive Rights Groups Gird for Abortion Ballot Fight

Oregon Life United says it’s gathered 100,000 signatures for a ballot measure that would bar public funding of abortions, curtailing access for poor women. Planned Parenthood and its allies may need to spend $2 million to defeat such a ballot measure.

Abortion rights are in retreat across the United States, but Oregon Democrats went to the barricades a year ago to push the state in the other direction -- guaranteeing the ability to get an abortion at no extra cost for almost all women, even immigrants living here without legal permission.

Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the ACLU may have to defend that achievement at the ballot box this November as a galvanized anti-abortion movement believes extending abortion coverage to unauthorized immigrant women might be the grist they need to stop the Oregon Health Plan from funding abortions for all women.

“Extremists are collecting signatures for a dangerous ballot measure that would amend the Oregon Constitution to restrict abortion for women who receive their health care through the state,” said Jimmy Radosta, the spokesman for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon.

Shut out of political power in the Legislature, Oregon Life United director Jeff Jimerson told the Medford Mail-Tribune earlier this year that his group of volunteers had collected nearly 100,000 signatures to bar Oregon from using public money to fund abortions for poor women. If true, those signatures have not yet been filed with the Secretary of State.

The backlash in Oregon to expanded abortion access comes amid a strong effort by anti-abortion groups to further reduce women’s access to abortion by making it difficult for clinics to offer the procedure, imposing symbolic but legally unenforceable restrictions against aborting fetuses with Down syndrome or based on sex, or by greatly curtailing the time period after conception that a woman can have an abortion.

Iowa passed the most dramatic law, barring an elective abortion after just six weeks, a restriction that will almost certainly be blocked in federal district court, but an appeal could serve as a test case before a U.S. Supreme Court increasingly hostile to abortion rights.

Social conservatives hope that pro-choice conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy will retire this year, setting up the Republican Senate to approve another anti-abortion justice from President Trump like Neil Gorsuch. That, in turn, could allow the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision to legalize elective abortion in the first two trimesters, up to about 24 weeks.

2018 Ballot Fight

Federal Medicaid dollars are not allowed for elective abortion, but Oregon is one of 17 states that provides state funding for most abortions in its Medicaid system.

Anti-abortion groups in Oregon have tried repeatedly to get voters to cut off public funding for abortions, and despite a lot of smoke in previous election years, they have failed to reach the ballot three times in a row. But Planned Parenthood is taking no chances this year.

“Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon takes every attack on access to safe, legal abortion seriously — particularly for Oregonians who already face significant barriers to receiving high-quality care,” Radosta said.

Pew Research has shown that 63 percent of Oregonians support legal abortion in most cases, but Jimerson told the Medford paper: “A majority of Oregonians don’t want tax dollars to pay for abortions.”

If the anti-abortion group succeeds in getting the measure on the ballot, it could cost women’s health advocates $1 million to $2 million to run a campaign defeating the measure. They’ll have help from some powerful friends.

“We are working with coalition partners to build a campaign structure to defeat this attack on reproductive freedom if it qualifies for the November ballot,” Radosta said.

Defend Oregon, a liberal coalition of organized labor, environmentalists and immigrant rights groups as well as reproductive health organizations, has taken up this cause, along with opposition to a litany of other conservative ballot measures that voters may see in the fall, including a repeal of Oregon’s sanctuary state law for unauthorized immigrants and a measure blocking new taxes on groceries. Defend Oregon, a rebranding of Our Oregon, is backed by big money from the state’s public employee unions.

Liberal Oregon Reduces Abortions

Oregon has perhaps the fewest restrictions on the right to an abortion of any place in the world. While most European countries bar the procedure after 12 to 14 weeks except when medically necessary, Oregon defaults to federal law and Oregon and Vermont are the only two states to place no further restrictions on abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

While unable to block abortion completely, most Republican-dominated states have erected a series of hurdles for women.

Idaho requires women to wait 24 hours after counseling, a hardship for rural women which might require an overnight stay in Boise, given the sprawling state’s scarcity of clinics willing to perform the procedure. Alaska requires women be informed of scientifically dubious accounts of fetal pain and a spurious link to breast cancer.

Despite the liberal approach to abortion, Oregon has greatly lowered the number of abortions in the state by focusing on reducing unplanned pregnancies rather than cutting off access to the procedure.

Oregon recorded 15,700 abortions in 1980, a statistic that fell to 8,600 in 2015 -- even as the state has grown from 2.6 million people to 4 million. At the same time, teen pregnancy rates have dropped from 4.4 percent of girls ages 15 through 17 in 1980 to 1.1 percent of girls in this age range in 2015.

Prenatal care is a chief focus of the Oregon Health Plan, and the state has also recently been a leader in making contraceptives easily available. Thanks to a 2015 law, women can now get oral contraceptives directly from a pharmacist without a special trip to a physician.

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].


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