Politics

The Future of Abortion in America Is State by State

Colorado and Louisiana made very different calls on ballot measures.

A woman in a beanie holds a sign that says "Protect Abortion Access." A person next to her holds a sign that says "The Burden Is Already Undue."
Demonstrators at the Supreme Court in D.C. on March 4. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The country had two ballot initiatives on abortion rights on the table this election, and they delivered opposite results.

In Louisiana, as expected, voters approved a measure that will amend the state constitution to explicitly clarify that the document does not include any right to abortion or abortion funding. A similar amendment passed in West Virginia in 2018 (it nullified a state Supreme Court decision that had found that denying Medicaid coverage for abortions constituted discrimination against low-income women). Alabama and Tennessee have also amended their state constitutions with similar language.

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The Louisiana amendment won’t change much. It could theoretically make it harder for future legal challenges to the state’s restrictive abortion laws to rely on implied constitutional rights to privacy or equal protection. If Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, Louisiana already has a so-called trigger law in place, which will immediately ban abortion in the state on the occasion of Roe’s demise. This amendment merely reinforces the state’s on-the-books readiness for a possible future in which states are permitted to ban abortion outright.

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Nothing will change in Colorado, either—but in this case, the results went the other way. Voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have banned abortions performed after 22 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape, incest, fetal anomalies, or threats to the health of the pregnant person.

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This is big news, and not just for Colorado. Though abortions performed later in pregnancy are extremely rare—abortions after 21 weeks constitute about 1.3 percent of U.S. abortions—Colorado is one of just seven states, in addition to the District of Columbia, that do not place gestational limits on abortion access. Every state on Colorado’s eastern border bans abortions after 20 weeks, and most others in the region have banned abortions performed after fetal viability. That makes Colorado a haven for people from other states who are making the often-difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy after 22 weeks. People from out of state—from 30 other states, to be exact—made up 11 percent of Colorado’s abortion patients in 2019.

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The initiative’s defeat is also a resounding win for the reproductive justice movement. Polling on the issue was close in the weeks leading up to the election. Colorado had rejected “personhood” ballot initiatives in previous years, but it can be hard to beat these kinds of proposed bans on later abortion. (While abortion rights in general are extremely popular, many Americans support some restrictions on the procedure.) With the vast majority of ballots counted, it looks like the diverse population of Colorado will have defeated the measure by a wide margin: 20 percentage points, at the time of this writing. That’s a victory for abortion access nationwide, even as these results foretell a future in which abortion rights are no longer a nationwide guarantee, and therefore impossible to access for even more women.

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