Susan J. Demas: Conservatives really don’t want to take no for an answer on abortion bans

November 20, 2023 4:33 am

A sign at the Michigan Pride rally in Lansing on June 26, 2022. | Photo by Laina G. Stebbins

The anti-abortion movement won a momentous victory last year when the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

After almost a half-century, the constitutional right to abortion was suddenly snatched away, leaving the matter up to the states, just as conservatives had insisted they desired. Long-dormant state abortion bans sprung back into effect, while red states wasted no time in enacting even more draconian measures, like criminalizing out-of-state travel for abortions.

It looked to many like conservatives were on an unstoppable roll to end legal abortion access in the U.S. 

Susan J. Demas: Why pundits still can’t admit they were wrong about abortion

The only problem was that Americans weren’t on board.

Yet even as thousands flocked to rallies across the country protesting the once-unimaginable loss of a basic right and women in key states like Michigan registered to vote in droves, the conventional wisdom was that abortion would fade as a key factor in the 2022 midterm elections.

The first sign that pundits had badly miscalculated the moment was when voters in reliably red Kansas in August 2022 shot down an anti-abortion referendum.

“It provided hope,” Nicole Wells Stallworth, then-executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, told the Advance.  “… And it validated all the things we’ve been saying: People don’t see this [abortion access] as a political issue but a personal, medical decision that should not be interfered with by politicians or government.”

Just three months later, Michigan voters had their say on abortion at the ballot box. The Reproductive Freedom for All constitutional amendment passed by 13 points, even triumphing in several GOP-dominated counties. 

And the Mitten State wasn’t alone. ​​Voters in four other states — California, Kentucky, Montana and Vermont — backed abortion rights measures last year.

Two other big tests came in elections this year in Virginia and Ohio. 

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was supposed to be hitting the presidential campaign trail in a new line of 2024 red vests after scoring big wins in state assembly races on the strength of his 15-week abortion ban proposal some analysts hailed as a clever compromise.

But Youngkin, who headlined the Michigan GOP post-convention extravaganza on the Capitol lawn last summer that preceded a Republican wipeout up and down the ballot, ended up extending his losing streak, as Democrats maintained the Virginia Senate and captured the House.

The message from conservatives is clear: Voters just can’t be trusted to make decisions on abortion. That’s something to keep in mind the next time you hear Republicans insist that they’d never, ever ram through a national abortion ban if they control the White House and both houses of Congress in 2025.

– Susan J. Demas

Abortion rights were directly on the ballot in Ohio — but not without a big fight from Republicans who dominate state politics. 

The GOP-controlled legislature tried to stack the deck against the amendment by placing Issue 1 on the August ballot that would require all ballot measures to hit 60% for passage. That ploy failed.

The abortion rights measure, which was similar to the one Michigan voters approved (Proposal 3 of 2022), also happened to win with the same support with voters, 57%.

“No matter how you apply abortion as an issue, in elections, it’s successful because people understand exactly what’s at stake – your ability to live in a place where it’s safe to become pregnant. It’s a pretty big deal,” Reproductive Freedom for All Vice President for Communications and Research Angela Vasquez-Giroux told States Newsroom after the elections. 

You might assume that conservatives would heed this warning after getting repeatedly creamed in elections for the last two years over abortion.

But some Republicans are undeterred. You see, they know better than voters.

Take Ohio Rep. Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester), who quickly unveiled legislation giving the Ohio General Assembly the ultimate power over implementing the abortion rights ballot measure — stripping judges of their duties to decide  due to perceived “mischief by pro-abortion courts,” per a press release.

And 27 state representatives signed a letter promising to “do everything in our power to prevent our laws from being removed, arguing the amendment’s language was “vague” and “intentionally deceptive.”

While GOP leaders have said they don’t plan to go along with some of their colleagues’ more extreme proposals, they do seem interested in a 15-week ban — even though voters just chose not to have any restrictions before viability.

Protesters gather in Lansing for a June 24, 2022 rally against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. | Photo by Andrew Roth

Well, that’s Ohio for you. At least the fight is over in Michigan, right? 

Why, of course not.

Just one day Ohioans voted for abortion rights, Right to Life of Michigan and other groups popped a lawsuit arguing that Michigan voters actually don’t have the right to direct democracy with our Proposal 3 because it cuts the Legislature out and created a “super-right.” 

Once again, the message from conservatives is clear: Voters just can’t be trusted to make decisions on abortion.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time you hear Republicans insist that they’d never, ever ram through a national abortion ban if they control the White House and both houses of Congress in 2025.

When it comes to our basic rights, actions speak louder than words.


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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.