Published November 16, 2023
Another ballot initiative, another disappointment for the pro-life movement.
In Ohio, voters passed an amendment creating a right to abortion in the state’s constitution by a margin of 13 points. This latest disappointment comes on the heels of losses in politically mixed states like Kansas, Kentucky, and Michigan, not to mention those in the progressive strongholds of Vermont and California. For those who would like to see more protections for the unborn, the writing is on the wall: pro-life politicians can and do win, but when it’s on the ballot, legalized abortion, especially when couched in terms of “protecting reproductive rights,” is popular.
For the Left, the playbook is clear—run the same strategy that has been successful in any state where they can get a voter-initiated referendum on the ballot, potentially coinciding with next year’s presidential election to drive turnout. As Vox‘s Rachel Cohen has reported, progressive activists are eyeing ballot initiatives in Arizona, Nevada, Florida, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. Based on the results to date, every state should be considered politically in play. And success is contagious—each subsequent victory gives reproductive rights advocacy groups momentum to reach for additional states.
To combat this outcome, the pro-life defense in each state may look different (Florida, for instance, requires a 60 percent threshold to pass an amendment). But, from my vantage point, the following three principles are key:
First, pick a goal that can be defended. Ohio’s “heartbeat bill” was passed in 2019, before the Supreme Court had even taken up the Dobbs v. Jackson case, which would eventually lead to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. It’s very likely that politicians then thought they were passing an easy “messaging bill” that wasn’t likely to become law.
But once the stakes became clear, some strategic revisiting may have been in order. A six-week ban on abortions, without clear exceptions for cases of rape or incest, was too uncompromising a stand to appeal to Ohio voters. Some would say that barring abortion in these heartbreaking edge cases is intellectually consistent; but politics will always be the art of applying principles in an imperfect world.
According to a 2022 poll from the University of Pennsylvania, 86 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in cases regarding rape and incest, which make up a small fraction of total abortions performed. In the words of Americans United for Life’s Clarke Forsythe, “state leaders need to be prudent and reflect not only on state elections but also national elections, and the pace of change the public might accept.” A clear, unquestionable exemption for abortions in the case of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is threatened makes the principle of a general ban on the procedure much easier to defend.
Second, recognize that the public doesn’t trust the Right on abortion. Pro-lifers care passionately about protecting moms and the unborn babies they carry. According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, 2,700 pregnancy resource centers nationwide provided approximately two million people with services in 2019, at an estimated value of over $266 million. Pro-lifers continue to put their time, money, and efforts into walking with moms in need.
The problem is, many voters don’t know that. And they weigh the seriousness of proposals to protect unborn life against the hoary old George Carlin line: that conservatives are “only pro-life until the baby is born.” And from a purely realpolitik perspective, feel-good stories don’t get play on the nightly news; policy proposals do.
The only way to appeal to political moderates who might feel some personal qualms about abortion, but see it as a tragic necessity for women who are not “stable” or “ready” enough to welcome a child is to establish credibility on pro-life, pro-family policies.
Ideally, this would include policies like a state-level child tax credit, additional child care support for low-income single moms, and more generous eligibility for Medicaid coverage for pregnant mothers and their children. None of these need break the bank. But a signature commitment to new moms and their babies, in conjunction with the heroic work being done every day by pregnancy resource centers and other charities, will give a positive push behind pro-life efforts.
Finally, preach to the unconverted, not the choir. Many pro-life autopsies of the defeats in Michigan and Ohio have called for better messaging, which can sometimes come across as a Monday-morning quarterback saying his favorite team should have had more heart. Better messaging can make a difference on the margins, but it cannot conceal a substance that is too far outside the mainstream to attract a majority of voters.
But pro-life forces must remember that in a popular vote, they need to persuade others, not simply motivate their own side. For example, ads about the referenda in Michigan and Ohio warned that passage would lead to youth gender transitions without parental consent. The topic reliably motivates conservative voters but may have left moderates wondering why advocates were seemingly changing the subject.
Instead, pro-life ads and messaging must stress the common-sense exceptions that will be in place, the meaningful safety-net investments any given state will be making, and the extremism of amendments that would allow abortion late into pregnancy.
There will always be a tension within the pro-life movement about how fast to push anti-abortion efforts, and where prudence dictates a more deliberate pace. Michael New, a well-respected scholar at the Lozier Institute, argues that “pro-lifers would do well to stay the course,” noting successful efforts to pass laws in states without a popular initiative process.
But stopping the bleeding means facing facts. Most estimates show that the laws passed since Dobbs have not led to a decrease in the number of abortions nationwide. Half of states offer voters the ability to amend their state constitution via referendum. The electorate in those states is not where the pro-life movement would like them to be. Most mainstream media outlets are in no mood to grant favors to those seeking abortion restrictions, no matter how prudent, and the deepest pockets will continue to favor the pro-choice side.
Ultimately, no amount of political strategy will be enough to replace the necessary goal of changing attitudes towards the value the unborn. But relying on a long-term strategy does not mean absolving oneself of the responsibility to find restrictions that can save unborn lives today. The two most important values, in the current context, for those who see the unborn as lives worthy of protection are prudence and charity. The principles outlined here may not be enough to win the day for the pro-life cause. But they may offer better odds than the results so far have shown.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.