Reproductive rights activists around the country celebrated the decisive defeat at the ballot box on November 4 of attempts to ban or limit abortion rights in South Dakota, Colorado, and California.
Unfortunately, four other ballot initiatives—to ban gay marriage and adoption by unmarried couples—succeeded. These initiatives—in California, Arkansas, Arizona, and Florida—were defeats not only for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, or GLBT community, but also for the reproductive rights community and for anyone who believes in freedom, equality, and fairness.
Reproductive rights mean more than the right to terminate a pregnancy, as explained in the Center for American Progress’s 2006 publication, “More Than a Choice.” In fact, a progressive reproductive rights agenda should encompass the ability to become a parent and to parent with dignity, to determine whether and when to have children, to have a healthy pregnancy, and to have healthy and safe families and relationships.
All of these issues were at stake in the 2008 ballot initiatives—both the measures that voters rejected, and the ones that passed into law. Specifically:
- South Dakota’s Measure 11 would have banned abortion with nominal exceptions for rape, incest, and the life or health of the woman. Designed as a direct legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, the ban clearly would have interfered with a woman’s ability to assess her own life circumstances and decide whether to become a parent. By impeding a physician’s ability to provide a pregnant woman with all appropriate medical care, it also would have jeopardized the right to a healthy pregnancy for women who want to carry current or future pregnancies to term. Voters rejected this dangerous law by 55 to 45 percent.
- Colorado’s Amendment 48 would have defined an embryo as a person, giving legal rights to every embryo beginning at fertilization. The impact of this “personhood” approach would have gone far beyond outlawing abortion. Bestowing legal rights on embryos would have prohibited the use of several types of birth control, and some practices to address infertility. It also might have prevented doctors from treating ectopic pregnancies, thereby threatening women’s future fertility and even their lives. This law would thus have obstructed many women from preventing a pregnancy, some women from ending unwanted pregnancies, and other women from becoming parents when they desperately wish to do so. Voters rejected the “personhood” amendment 73 to 27 percent.
- California’s Proposition 4 would have changed the state constitution to require doctors to notify parents before performing an abortion on a minor. This proposed law ignored the rights of young women to make their own decisions about whether or not to become parents. It also would have undermined ethical high-quality health care by forcing health providers to violate patient confidentiality, and it would have placed vulnerable teens at risk for family violence, homelessness, and forced reporting of abuse under unsafe circumstances. Recognizing that this law would not appropriately address at-risk family situations or create healthier, happier families, voters rejected the amendment 52 to 48 percent.
In all of these cases, voters recognized what was at stake, and voted against restrictions on reproductive freedom. But in four other cases, that didn’t happen:
- Arkansas residents voted to prohibit unmarried people, whether single or in heterosexual or same-sex couples, from adopting or fostering children. This effort, motivated by blatant homophobic intolerance, will prevent many caring, responsible adults from becoming parents. Sadly, this mean-spirited measure passed at a time when 3,700 children in Arkansas are in state custody awaiting loving homes.
- In Arizona, California, and Florida, voters approved constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage. These laws undermine families and relationships, and in many cases, the ability to become a parent or to parent with dignity. These laws also relegate one group of people to second-class citizenship, denying them rights and responsibilities that most Americans take for granted simply because they fell in love with someone society deems the wrong person.
Reproductive rights are about far more than abortion—they also encompass contraception, adoption, and intimate relationships, including marriage. The ability to manage our fertility through contraception and, when necessary, abortion, enables us to plan our families and to determine whether, when, and with whom to have children. Adoption, too, allows caring adults to become parents and form loving families. And marriage provides legal and social benefits that make it easier to care for one another and to raise children with the security and resources they need to thrive.
These rights are indivisible, and defending them comes not only from a concern for women or for the GLBT community. Reproductive rights are about nothing less than the ability to chart one’s own course in life—to make decisions about love, sex, and family without government interference or discrimination. That ability is central to core American values of freedom, equality, and fairness. It is time for progressives to join together in support of a complete and comprehensive reproductive rights agenda that advances liberty and justice for all.