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Republican States Reject Anti-Abortion Personhood Amendments

Ballot measures that would have defined a fetus as a person lost in North Dakota and Colorado. But voters paved the way for new abortion restrictions in Tennessee Tuesday.

Personhood amendments are now 0-5 in elections. Voters in North Dakota and Colorado both rejected ballot measures that would have defined a fetus as a person.

The results fit within a larger trend where 25 of 33 ballot measures aimed at restricting abortions since 1978 have failed, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, an advocacy organization in favor of legal access to abortion services.

But anti-abortion advocates did claim one major victory. In Tennessee, a constitutional amendment paves the way for the legislature to pass new restrictions on abortions.

Here are the results for the three ballot measures:

  Yes No
Colorado 36 64
North Dakota 36 64
Tennessee 53 47
In 2000, Tennessee’s state Supreme Court struck down several abortion restrictions in a ruling that said Tennessee’s constitution offered higher privacy protections than even the federal constitution, and those protections extended to a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. The ballot measure that passed Nov. 4 represents a 14-year campaign by Republican lawmakers to circumvent that ruling.

The Tennessee measure doesn’t actually ask voters to approve restrictions on abortion. Instead, it asks voters to add language in the state Constitution that would clarify “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”

The amendment goes on to say that Tennessee voters have a right to change abortion laws through their elected state representatives in the legislature. But in all likelihood, now that the legislature has the right “to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion,” legislators will tighten restrictions against abortion. Consider the provisions that the state Supreme Court struck down in 2000:

  • a ban on second-trimester abortions outside of hospitals
  • a two-day delay after meeting with a physician before an abortion could take place
  • a mandate that physicians hand out certain information before an abortion could take place
Even after the state Supreme Court ruling, the legislature has passed some abortion regulations with less far-reaching implications. It has banned the use of video conferences for doctors to prescribe abortion-inducing drugs to patients. Legislators also passed a law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Similar laws have been struck down in other states.

The measures that failed in North Dakota and Colorado drew controversy over ambiguous language in the ballot title that allowed proponents to claim they weren't personhood amendments, per se. In North Dakota, the measure would have defined life as beginning at conception. The Colorado measure would have given prosecutors the ability to file criminal charges against people who harm unborn children -- including mothers who terminate their pregnancy.

“If we treat a child in the womb at any point as a person, couldn’t it lead to ending abortion? I think it could,” said Keith Mason, the president of Personhood USA, a group campaigning in favor of the measure. “The goal is to respect the human dignity at every age. When you respect human dignity, you don’t kill them. For us, ending abortion is a good thing.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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