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Measures defending abortion rights win across the U.S.

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Statewide votes on abortion played a major role in the midterm elections. Where the issue was on the ballot, voters largely signaled support for abortion rights.

NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon covers abortion policy, and she joins us now. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Elissa.

NADWORNY: So we know that voters ranked abortion among the top issues of concern in these midterms.

MCCAMMON: Right.

NADWORNY: But let's talk about the places where the question was directly on the ballot. Where were these ballot initiatives, and how did they do?

MCCAMMON: Well, it was a big night for supporters of abortion rights. You know, in three states, voters approved proposals to shore up abortion rights in their state constitutions. A couple of those - Vermont and California - were no big surprise. Michigan, though, was a big win for abortion rights supporters. Voters there approved an amendment that was put forward through a signature process to guarantee what was described as reproductive autonomy. And Democrats also kept the governor's mansion, took over the statehouse in a year when abortion rights were front and center in the campaign there.

So on top of those, Elissa, there was Kentucky, a deeply red state, of course, but where abortion rights supporters still succeeded in quashing an amendment that would have been unfavorable to abortion rights. Anthony Romero is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. His group got involved in several of these races.

ANTHONY ROMERO: If you can win in a place like Kentucky, if you can win in a place - like we did in Kansas, I mean, the Republican voters are not with the Republican leadership.

MCCAMMON: So he's referring there to a similar vote in Kansas in August. And he says, in this post-Roe v. Wade world, where a dozen or so states have banned abortion, he believes voters are pushing back and signaling that they don't support that level of restriction. And that includes many Republicans, he says.

NADWORNY: What about the opponents of abortion rights? What are they saying about these results?

MCCAMMON: So they acknowledged that some of these results are disappointing, but they're not willing to concede that they've lost the electorate on this issue. Anti-abortion groups have been focusing on the fact that they were outspent in many of these races by both Democratic candidates and groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, who invested heavily in messaging around abortion. I talked to Stephen Billy today. He's the vice president of state affairs for SBA Pro-Life America.

STEPHEN BILLY: I think we'd better learn our lesson from the ballot initiatives that were - you know, we didn't win last night. As we go forward, I mean, it's clear that the abortion industry wants to use the courts to try to take the issue out of voters' hands. It's clear that they would try to use ballot initiatives where they're able to use outside money and to try to, you know, use ballot initiatives as a way to thwart the legislative process.

MCCAMMON: So the argument he's trying to make there is essentially that these ballot initiatives don't really reflect the will of the people, which is kind of a tough case to make. Polling has consistently shown a majority of Americans support abortion rights, even if they do favor some restrictions. And it is true, though, that some - that supporters of abortion rights out-fundraised and outspent their opponents in some of these states.

But there also was heavy investment by anti-abortion groups and lots of door-knocking by both sides. SBA, for example, just announced that they'll spend about a million dollars in the Georgia Senate runoff to support Republican Herschel Walker. And Billy, with SBA Pro-Life America, also stressed some of the successes for Republicans, especially governors like Brian Kemp in Georgia and Ron DeSantis in Florida, who've all opposed abortion rights and won reelection by solid margins.

NADWORNY: You've been talking to people all year about their thoughts and feelings on abortion. Why do you think these anti-abortion laws are getting so much pushback now?

MCCAMMON: Well, this was the first major election after the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. And I think what's happened is that we are seeing the impact of that decision - seeing the impact of abortion bans - you know, access shutting down in many states and a lot of confusion in many cases. So it's no longer hypothetical. We've also heard from voters who have some nuanced views on abortion, but ultimately say they feel some of these restrictions have gone too far. And I think we saw that reflected in the polling and also in some of these votes last night.

NADWORNY: NPR's Sarah McCammon, thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.