The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Abortion rights won big. Here’s what to do next.

A door tag in support of Proposal 3 on a door in Plymouth, Mich., on Oct. 30. (Nic Antaya for The Washington Post)

In Michigan, Vermont and California, voters in Tuesday’s midterm elections overwhelmingly approved ballot initiatives that will enshrine the right to abortion in their state constitutions. In Kentucky, voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have protected the state’s near-total abortion ban from legal challenges. And in Montana, voters nixed a measure that would have criminalized health-care providers who do not make every effort to save the life of an infant “born during an attempted abortion” or after labor or Caesarean section.

These results represent just the early victories in what might be a long campaign to restore abortion rights across the country. Republicans should ask themselves whether they want to be on the wrong side of this effort.

Americans all over the map turned out to defend reproductive freedom. The wins served as a rebuke to the Supreme Court, which in June stripped away the constitutional right to abortion, and as a warning to lawmakers who seek to make medical decisions that should be left up to women and their doctors.

The Kentucky and Montana results follow those in Kansas, another Republican-leaning state, where voters rejected in August a constitutional amendment that would have ended abortion protections. These results underscore that most Americans generally favor abortion rights — and that a gap too often exists between what voters want and what lawmakers enact.

Questions of reproductive rights also appear to have influenced some candidates’ races. Republicans had tried to deflect attention from abortion to other issues, such as inflation or crime. But in exit polls, almost 3 in 10 voters said abortion was the most important issue affecting their votes; about 4 in 10 voters said they were “angry” about the June court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade and its nearly 50 years of constitutional protections.

Given the state ballot initiatives’ success, the natural next step is more of them. According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a national organization that supports progressive ballot initiatives, more than a dozen states are getting ready for campaigns to push protections for abortion rights. Yet such campaigns are expensive and time-consuming, and not every state allows them. They also would not afford protections if Congress enacted a federal abortion ban, as some Republicans have proposed.

Short of an unlikely Supreme Court reversal, the best way to restore women’s reproductive rights is for Congress to codify Roe’s protections in federal law. President Biden had promised to make such legislation his top priority if two more Democrats were elected to the Senate. That is not happening, and Democrats might lose control of the House.

Even before Tuesday’s rebuke, there were a handful of Republicans on Capitol Hill willing to deal on codifying Roe — but many Democrats were not interested in working on a compromise. Rather than holding out for a perfect bill, Democrats should seek bipartisan legislation that protects abortion rights as far as the politics allow. Republicans, meanwhile, should recognize that they are wrong on reproductive freedom — morally and politically. They would be wise to defuse the issue as soon as possible.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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