Jon O'Brien, President, Catholics for Choice.
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There are some important lessons to learn from the outcome in Albuquerque, where voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have banned later abortion in the city. This defeat protected services that women from all over the country come to New Mexico to use.
The rest of the US should take note. Time and again, those of us who support abortion access have been told that later abortion is a losing issue. We have been told that voters are opposed to later abortion. We have been told that the only winning arguments involve “tough cases” like fetal anomaly, rape, incest or life endangerment. The opposition misjudged how the public would respond to similar black-and-white arguments, and it also miscalculated the resources needed to win the fight. We thought before, and we certainly know now, that what reaches people about access to later abortion is something deeper than a hard case. To rely upon a narrow set of hypotheticals ignores women’s fundamental moral autonomy, and it also underestimates the public’s support for women’s dignity.
Protecting later abortion is not a losing issue. Particularly in today’s divisive electoral climate, the vote in Albuquerque (55 percent to 45 percent) was a landslide in favor of preserving access to later abortion. Just as the film After Tiller has created opportunities for people across the country to consider later abortion in a new light, this ballot initiative offered Catholics for Choice and other national, state and local organizations like ours an opportunity to dig deep. We found that when we put in the time and the resources to meet people where they were—both literally, in their city, and figuratively, in their hearts and minds—we won, and we won big.
Just as Florida Catholics did in 2012 when the supposedly “losing” issue of abortion funding was put to a popular vote, Catholic voters in Albuquerque intuitively grasped that this ballot measure was unjust. We simply gave them a chance to have a conversation about later abortion in the language that resonated with them: the language of faith, justice and ethics—the language of Catholicism. We encouraged them to tap into their own beliefs and experiences and, in turn, Catholic voters in Albuquerque felt empowered to not only vote their values, but to share those values with others.
We know, of course, that none of this will prevent antichoice groups and their allies from attempting to push later abortion restrictions into law and onto ballots. Having failed to convince the majority of Catholics to follow their dictates, the US bishops have, for decades, supported restrictions on reproductive health services in state and federal legislatures.
All elected officials and prochoice advocates, however, should take the hint, one sent loudly and clearly in recent years by voters in Albuquerque, Florida, Mississippi, North Dakota, Colorado and California: Americans reject ballot measures designed to restrict abortion rights, whether they involve bestowing rights on embryos or banning later abortion. American’s aren’t buying what the bishops and their allies are selling, and they are not willing to vote away their rights or those of their neighbors.
As the US Senate considers a later abortion ban similar to the one proposed in Albuquerque, and as state legislatures will likely face similar legislation in the future, politicians and prochoice advocates alike need to take their lead from the Land of Enchantment. We cannot simply throw our hands in the air and accept defeat just because an issue has been called “tough.” Instead, we need to put in the work to lift up our values, explain why women need access to abortion care and have faith in the intelligence and compassion of the American people.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.
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