A MONTH AHEAD OF ELECTIONS ….
By the time you read this, November elections will be less than a month away. A year ahead of presidential elections, 2023 may not attract the attention elections usually do. But failing to pay attention to them would be a fatal mistake for pro-lifers because 2023 will be, in many ways, a dress rehearsal for next year.
One danger in off-year elections is that diminished attention affords special interests discount magnification of their impact. Special interests can concentrate their money and attention to maximize their influence. That was apparent in the April special election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
2023 features legislative elections in New Jersey, Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It also highlights an Ohio referendum to amend the Buckeye State’s constitution to guarantee not just abortion-on-demand through birth but a whole additional range of other sexual and reproductive “rights.” Kentucky elects a governor. Three vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives (RI-1, UT-2, VA-4) will be filled.
Pro-life priorities are the Ohio referendum, the Virginia Legislature, and the Kentucky governorship. Those are also the races into which pro-abortion forces have been pouring resources, especially from out-of-state.
Pro-abortion forces in Ohio have used initiative and referendum (I&R) to bypass the State Legislature and propose a “Right to Reproductive Freedom” amendment to the state constitution. The amendment not only bans any restrictions on abortion through birth (along with requiring state subsidy of abortion), but also protecting “fertility treatment,” which could ensconce state support for artificial reproduction (in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination) as well as, arguably, surrogacy. The amendment contains window-dressing language restricting abortion after “viability,” but exceptions for maternal life or “health” and explicit reservation of decision about the necessity of the abortion to the “pregnant patient’s treating physician” effectively render the supposed restriction meaningless.
I&R is a mechanism adopted by a number of states as part of the “Progressive reform” efforts in the early 20th century. It allows for citizens to propose a law or even a state constitutional amendment by submission of a specified number of supportive signatures. The initiated proposal is then subject to popular referendum which, if approved, becomes law. 26 states currently allow regular laws to be proposed through I&R. Of those states, 18 also allow some form of I&R-driven state constitutional amendment.
Pro-abortion state constitutional amendments were adopted in 2022 in California, Michigan, and Vermont; pro-life amendments failed in Kansas and Kentucky. The Michigan amendment was I&R-driven, making the Great Lakes State—along with Illinois—Midwestern abortion meccas.
Paired with defeat of pro-life amendments in Kansas and Kentucky, pro-abortion forces are resorting to I&R processes, especially in otherwise pro-life states where local legislatures would not enact pro-abortion amendments, to lock in “abortion rights.” I&R is attractive for a number of reasons: (i) many states allowing I&R constitutional amendments lack the super-majority requirements usually in place for such amendments if they originated, for example, in the usual way through legislatures; (ii) forcing constitutional amendments over that simplified hurdle prevents legislatures from subsequently being able to protect unborn life; and (iii) electoral sloganeering lets pro-abortionists claim they are merely “codifying Roe v. Wade” (which, to some degree, is true, given that Roe really allows abortion-on-demand through birth, a fact the public generally does not realize and pro-abortionists do not advertise).
Adoption of the Ohio “Right to Reproductive Freedom” amendment would wipe out hard won pro-life gains over decades in that state, while establishing one of the most liberal legal protections for the sexual revolution in the country. Bringing down pro-life laws in Ohio, coupled with efforts to invent a “right to abortion” through the state Supreme Court in Wisconsin, will likely lead to efforts to plough past protections of the unborn in traditionally pro-life Midwestern states like Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, etc. Already, efforts to put pro-abortion I&R state constitutional amendments on the November 2024 ballot are underway in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arizona and may soon be in Florida. Democrats believe bringing out pro-abortion votes will push their candidates forward.
Virginia is the only southern state that has not made progress on pro-life legislation, in large part due to a standoff in its legislature: Democrats control the State Senate 22-18, Republicans the House of Delegates 49-46 (with 5 vacancies). In the last session, pro-life legislation went to die in the Senate. Pro-life Governor Glenn Youngkin hopes to keep control of the lower chamber while flipping the Senate. Pro-abortionists recognize Virginia’s is the one legislative contest worth their attention this year: their control of the Democrat-run New Jersey Legislature is virtually certain, their ability to take control of pro-life legislatures in Louisiana and Mississippi virtually impossible. A pro-life Virginia House of Delegates would allow protective legislation for the unborn, much of which was scrapped under former Governor Northam in 2020. Pro-abortionists, on the other hand, hope to hold the Senate and take the House because they could then enact a pro-abortion amendment to the state constitution (which would have to be approved by a second legislature but requires no gubernatorial consent) that would root abortion in the Commonwealth Constitution. Like Ohio in the Midwest, Virginia would become the South’s poster child for abortion.
Finally, in Kentucky first-term Democrat incumbent Andy Beshear is seeking reelection. Beshear, pro-abortion, vetoed a 15-week ban on abortion in 2022 as well as restrictions on pharmaceutical-induced abortions. He is running against Republican pro-life Commonwealth Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who received the Kentucky Right to Life Political Action Committee’s endorsement. Beshear tries to camouflage his pro-abortion commitments by trying to refocus and narrow the discussion to hard cases–rape and incest—while ignoring the vast majority of abortions obtained for socio-economic reasons. Although usually a Republican state, intra-state politics in Kentucky can be volatile. Combined with the advantages of incumbency, Beshear may hope to squeak back into office.
The three special House elections are unlikely to switch parties. Rhode Island will almost certainly remain Democratic, Utah Republican, and Virginia Democratic. The Virginia seat, from the Richmond area down to the North Carolina border, was at one time competitive but has been reconfigured to lean Democratic towards incumbent Jennifer McClellan.
In the year and a half since Dobbs, pro-lifers have been trying to adjust to a reverse of the political dynamics imposed in 1973: then, state prolife organizations were strong but there was little of a national right to life presence, a challenge when Roe federalized abortion. A half century of Roe, however, has led to the attenuation of many state-level organizations that have suddenly again become vital in the post-Dobbs era.
Pro-lifers, however, appear to need to learn two vital lessons:
First, like it or not, the corrosive effect of Roe has been that many Americans consider permissive abortion regimes to be absolutely normal. Reversing a mentality that law and culture has grounded for nearly half a century will not be easy, its extraction exacting deep drilling. We should harbor no illusions in this respect.
Second, pro-lifers need to get more sophisticated about political processes. Many appear to have “Senator Jefferson Smith (of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”)” views of civics. They continue to think that rational argument and debate is the way to tackle the abortion issue.
It is not. Contemporary politics is not so much about rational discourse as narratives and communications. We will not change America exclusively on the basis of rational argument. We need to realize the need for an overarching narrative that recognizes we need to frame and advance the pro-life story, not just pursue debate-like arguments. We must be explicitly aware that we are wrestling in many cases with a visceral acceptance of abortion that Roe allowed to metastasize for nearly 50 years. The sooner we recognize those facts, the faster we may compete with an opposition that applies those tactics with finesse.