Montana pro-choice rally.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Voters in five states may be asked to vote on abortion restrictions in the November election in what is shaping up as a watershed year for anti-choice activism on ballot initiatives.

The most drastic measures would ban abortion altogether. They are the result of the aggressive entry into the world of ballot initiatives by the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a national anti-choice legal organization itching to end abortion by popular vote and to take a new case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Inside the anti-choice movement the ballot measures are divisive, raising a struggle over strategy.

Twenty-four states permit the initiative process, but they are most commonly pursued in a handful of Western and Midwestern states. In recent elections, “moral values” initiatives banning same-sex marriage or affirmative action have been used to draw religious conservatives to the polls. In the 2000 election cycle, 78 initiatives were on state ballots.

Measures proposed in two states–Montana and Colorado–would ask voters to adopt a state “human life amendment,” granting a fetus the same rights as a person from the moment of conception or fertilization, making abortion an act of homicide. Similar proposals in Oregon and Georgia were blocked at an early stage.

In two other states–Missouri and South Dakota–the proposed ballot measures are so stern they would ban most abortions or make it impossible for doctors to provide them. In California, a parental notification law may be on the ballot for the third year in a row, and a similar measure is also being considered in Montana.

The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a watchdog and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., has been closely tracking the trend of anti-choice measures, calling them a “return to the 2004 conservative strategy of trying to use divisive social issues to rally their depressed base.”

Anti-Choice Dispute

While pro-choice activists are gearing up for a fight, the ballot measures are also causing a slugfest in the anti-choice movement.

At one side are “absolutists” who want to outlaw abortion completely and immediately. They are led by the Thomas More Law Center, which has a $2 million annual budget and has helped activists in Montana, Colorado, Oregon and Georgia draft or defend language for human life amendments.

“We have to have a strategy to end abortion,” said Robert Muise, a center attorney who believes a state personhood measure will directly challenge the 1973 Supreme Court decision that prohibited states from completely restricting abortion rights. “It would create a train wreck with Roe v. Wade, and that’s what we want,” he said.

Disagreement has come from the large National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C., which, in years past, tried to pass a federal human life amendment but could not. It now argues that the Supreme Court needs more justices clearly opposed to abortion before a human life amendment will be permitted to stand.

James Bopp Jr., general counsel of the National Right to Life Committee, wrote a bristling 13-page memo with an associate in August 2007 when its Georgia affiliate agreed with the Thomas More Law Center to sponsor a state human life amendment, calling the measure “useless and potentially dangerous.” Instead Bopp recommended an “incremental” strategy and electing more officials opposed to abortion rights.

‘Personhood’ on Montana’s Ballot

Montana is the most recent testing ground for the absolutists.

There, activists led by a state legislator with the Constitution Party, which aims “to restore . . . our law to its biblical foundations,” are collecting signatures for the CI-100 ballot initiative to give complete legal personhood to an embryo or fetus from the moment of conception. Although couched in other terms, it amounts to an abortion ban. It needs 44,615 verified signatures to make it onto the November ballot.

In early March, Montanans also saw the introduction of ballot measures seeking to require parental notification for minors seeking an abortion.

“We’ve not had anti-choice ballot initiatives in Montana before,” said Stacey Anderson, director of public affairs for Billings-based Planned Parenthood of Montana. “We’ve had anti-government ones, but nothing that specifically engaged the pro-choice community, and now we’re looking at two.”

The state’s Catholic Conference, the organization of Catholic bishops, opposes the human life amendment for not being “the most beneficial venue.” It supports parental notification and other measures “to incrementally bring about the ultimate objective of ending abortion.”

“The ballot measures are an extension of how the anti-choice side uses states as laboratories to forcefully challenge Roe v. Wade or to chip away at Roe v. Wade,” said Ted Miller, spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington, D.C.

Miller said that many of the bans that could make it onto ballots this November are cloaked in vocabulary that disguises their intent. “They use deceptive titles because they know the public would reject them otherwise,” he said.

Canvassing in Colorado

Colorado activists for a human life amendment must collect 76,000 signatures by May 13. That campaign has 900 volunteers canvassing at hundreds of churches, said Bob Enyart, a radio host and spokesperson for American Right to Life in Denver, which advocates for the amendment.

American Right to Life is not affiliated with the National Right to Life Committee, and calls the “incremental” approach an “immoral strategy.”

If enough signatures are collected in Colorado, Protect Families Protect Choice, a pro-choice coalition of 17 groups, is preparing to fight it with an educational campaign.

“Colorado is not an extreme state, so I think it will be defeated,” said Jody Berger, director of communications for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. The coalition first formed in 2000 and successfully defeated a parental consent ballot measure at that time.

In Sioux Falls, S.D., several churches posted signs, urging people to sign a petition to put a new abortion ban on the state’s ballot, said Caitlin Collier, a lobbyist for the South Dakota Advocacy Network for Women, which opposes the measure.

In November 2006, state voters overturned an abortion ban signed by the governor that allowed an exception only to save the life of a woman.

The new proposal adds an exception for women who are survivors of rape or incest, but only if they report to the police, including the name and address of the rapist or a description of him. Women may also get an abortion if they will face “substantial and irreversible impairment of the functioning of a major bodily organ or system.”

In Missouri, an anti-choice ballot proposal would make it a crime for a doctor to refer for or provide an abortion without documenting “emotional, psychological, physical, situational and demographic evaluations” that a woman does not have a “risk factor” for “physical, emotional or psychological reaction.” It was submitted by a group started by David C. Reardon, who heads the anti-choice Elliot Institute in Springfield, Ill.

“It’s a political maneuver to keep doctors from providing services in needed circumstances,” said Rev. Rebecca Turner, executive director of the Missouri Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who frequently writes about reproductive justice and politics.

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