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Several state ballot measures resulted in victories for abortion rights supporters

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Abortion rights supporters had a successful run of ballot measures this year. In states where voters were asked to weigh in directly, they supported measures protecting abortion rights and rejected those that could threaten those rights. NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon covers abortion rights policy and joins us now. Good morning, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK. So let's start with what the actual impact of these ballot measures are. What do the results mean?

MCCAMMON: Right. So nothing changes right away in the states that passed protections for abortion rights, so Michigan, California, Vermont. But those votes do make it more difficult to roll those rights back in the future. In Kentucky, voters rejected an amendment that would have said that their state constitution contains no protections for abortion. So it's kind of a double negative there.

FADEL: Right.

MCCAMMON: But there are two abortion bans in effect right now in Kentucky. They're being challenged in court. And this week's result, Leila, could help to strengthen that case.

FADEL: OK. So when faced with a direct choice, voters chose to reject measures that threaten abortion rights protection. So what does that say about where voters stand on this issue?

MCCAMMON: Well, voters in these states seem to be signaling their opposition to the deep restrictions that have taken effect in about a dozen states since this summer. Here's what Rachel Sweet, who led the winning campaigns in - both in Kansas in August and in Kentucky this week, said after Kentucky's vote.

RACHEL SWEET: Clearly, when voters get to decide directly on an issue, they will, you know, generally overwhelmingly support the right to access safe and legal abortion. So when we can take this issue out of the hands of politicians and let the people decide directly, we can get some really exciting results.

MCCAMMON: And we're talking about red states here. In Kentucky, GOP Senator Rand Paul easily won reelection.

FADEL: Right.

MCCAMMON: But voters still rejected that amendment. So this suggests a willingness among some Republicans to cross party lines when it comes to abortion rights.

FADEL: OK. So how are groups who oppose abortion responding to this.

MCCAMMON: Right. They're emphasizing where they did win, so some gains in Congress. Several Republican governors who signed abortion bans kept their jobs pretty easily, including Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.

FADEL: OK.

MCCAMMON: And as for the ballot initiatives, anti-abortion groups are stressing that they were outspent, which is true. They say they believe that voters were misled in some cases by some of the messaging around these initiatives. Marjorie Dannenfelser of SBA Pro-Life America spoke to reporters yesterday, said she's concerned more states will pass ballot measures along the lines of California's. And she argues that it's often better for abortion laws to be made by elected officials after a robust public debate.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: It is the biggest concern that we have in the pro-life movement that we gain our advantage that we find through candidates debating the issue - where we don't have that advantage when we're outspent 10-to-1 in a referendum. It is a serious problem.

MCCAMMON: But, Leila, the challenge for groups like hers is that most Americans are generally supportive of abortion rights with some limits, and don't align with a lot of these laws, you know, banning abortion, for example, in cases of rape and incest.

FADEL: OK. So anti-abortion groups worry that ballot measures may chip away at their gains. Are we likely to see more of them then?

MCCAMMON: Yeah. NYU law professor Melissa Murray thinks there's a real appetite among many voters to push back against some of these laws.

MELISSA MURRAY: So you know, California may have a different logic for this than, say, Kansas, where, you know, the prospect of government encroachment might seem like the antithesis of conservatism. But it's all casting out in the same way.

MCCAMMON: So I'm hearing it's likely that there will be more of these in states that have a statewide citizen referendum process. And I've heard states talked about - like Ohio, Arkansas and Missouri - as potential future targets for ballot campaigns.

FADEL: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.