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A mixed election for reproductive rights

Defeats for personhood amendments, but wins for candidates that want to further restrict a woman's access to abortion.
Republican U.S. Senator-elect Joni Ernst thanks her supporters after she won the U.S. Senate race on election night at the Marriott Hotel on Nov. 4, 2014 in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican U.S. Senator-elect Joni Ernst thanks her supporters after she won the U.S. Senate race on election night at the Marriott Hotel on Nov. 4, 2014 in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Abortion rights opponents were celebrating big victories on Wednesday, with a new Republican majority in the Senate that includes several of their most fervent allies.

"Remember 2014, the night abortion lost," wrote David French in a representative post in The National Review.  

Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, who never repudiated her support for a personhood initiative that would ban abortion and restrict some forms of contraception, was elected to the Senate. So was Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who backed away from a state but not a federal personhood measure. He defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who lost decisively despite making reproductive rights the centerpiece of his candidacy.

Colorado had already heard the message that Republicans were going to restrict reproductive rights in 2008, 2010, and 2012 (when personhood wasn't on the ballot but a key part of Obama's message.) Voters may simply have been sick of hearing about the issue, or suspected the Democrats were crying wolf.

Republican Thom Tillis, who as North Carolina state House speaker pushed through several restrictions on abortion access, defeated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, an abortion rights supporter. Those Republicans won despite fierce efforts by Democrats and reproductive rights groups to draw a contrast on those issues.

The new GOP Senate majority is push through restrictions that have already passed the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, including a ban on abortion at 20 weeks, which President Barack Obama has previously said he would veto. Senate Republicans may well make it harder to confirm judges sympathetic to abortion rights. 

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Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who signed several restrictions on abortion but positioned himself as a moderate, won re-election. Two candidates who were bete-noires of social conservatives for championing reproductive rights, Sandra Fluke and Wendy Davis, lost big in their races for California state senator and Texas governor, respectively. 

Two bright spots for abortion rights supporters were in Colorado and North Dakota, where personhood amendments, that would have effectively given fertilized eggs full citizenship rights, were defeated. But the margin by which the Colorado amendment lost, 64-36, was narrower than in two previous tries in 2008, when it failed 73-27 and 2010, when it failed 70-30. The 2014 version of personhood, however, included language about protecting pregnant women and did not even include the word "personhood." 

In Tennessee, where there were no other hotly contested statewide races, voters backed a constitutional amendment that will make it easier for the legislature to impose new burdens on abortion clinics and patients. The amendment passed with about 53% of the vote, even though opposition to it significantly outspent supporters. The Tennessean reported that the vote showed “a clear urban and rural divide,” with a 2-1 vote against in Davidson County, which includes Nashville, and opposition in the counties that include Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis. 

The somewhat confusing text of the Tennessee amendment read, "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother." The goal was to override the fact that the state Supreme Court has said Tennessee's constitution had a right to privacy that precluded such restrictions. 

Waiting in the wings are a series of state restrictions struck down in 2000 on that reasoning, including a two-day waiting period that puts a particular burden on women coming in from out of state and low-income women and requires doctors to provide medically inaccurate information, and a requirement that second-trimester abortions be performed in hospitals. 

Tennessee borders several states, notably Mississippi, that put far more onerous restrictions on abortion patients and clinics and have fewer clinics.

 “In a region already devastated by underhanded abortion restrictions, Tennessee has stood up for women by providing strong constitutional protections for their reproductive rights,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights in a statement. “This constitutional amendment kicks open the door for Tennessee politicians to do what far too many of their neighboring colleagues have done over the last several years and run roughshod over women’s rights and health.”