Abortion foes in Oregon are trying a new approach to advance their cause in one of the most progressive states in the country — making it about money, not morality.
They’re relying on anti-tax sentiment to win support for a Nov. 6 ballot initiative that would ban the vast majority of public funding for the procedure, rather than the making it a referendum on the procedure itself as they have in more conservative states like Texas.
The group behind the measure sees the tax-heavy message as the campaign’s best shot at gaining traction.
“If it’s about abortion, then this this goes down,” said Jim Moore, a political analyst and Pacific University professor. “If it’s about costs, then there’s a chance it can pass. But this requires a pretty sophisticated campaign, and we have seen nothing on that so far.”
The referendum led by Oregon Life United is still a long shot, with the Republican gubernatorial candidate opposing it and the ballot campaign being easily out-raised by abortion rights supporters. But it shows the battle for abortion rights is spilling over into traditionally Democratic parts of the country.
The Oregon anti-abortion group this summer just narrowly secured enough signatures to land the measure on the November ballot after failed attempts in previous years.
The campaign behind the ballot initiative, known as Measure 106, poses this question to voters: “If abortion is a personal choice, why should it be funded by our tax dollars?” The campaign’s tagline: “Your money, your choice.”
The word “choice” particularly rankles abortion rights supporters because of the way the proposition would effectively block abortion access for Medicaid enrollees as well as state and public employees on Oregon-sponsored health plans.
Roughly a third of all reproductive-aged women in the state — about 350,000 women – would be affected, according to Planned Parenthood estimates.
Supporters of abortion rights say they are taking the ballot initiative as a serious threat. They kicked off the “No Cuts to Care” campaign against Measure 106 last weekend in Portland, Eugene and Hillsboro, a city just west of Portland.
“It will take a very disciplined, robust campaign to make sure Oregon voters understand what’s really at stake, and we have to be mindful about how the proponents’ message can resonate,” said Jann Carson, deputy director of the ACLU of Oregon. “No question they’re trying to take away access. They’re just trying to find a more palatable way to do that with voters.”
Democratic-led Oregon is in company with the two other states, Alabama and West Virginia, facing ballot measures aiming to limit the procedure this fall. Those two measures would amend their state constitutions to declare abortion rights are not protected, potentially paving the way for those states to ban the procedure outright if the embattled Judge Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court and becomes a fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
While Oregon’s ballot measure isn’t nearly as restrictive as those in Alabama or West Virginia, it signals that abortion foes are willing to take the fight to progressive states.
“Either abortion opponents grasp on to an issue they feel gins up conservative voters, or the opponents feel their legislature isn’t listening to them so they take it to the people,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior states issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.
But amid signs of a Democratic wave in November, the ballot initiative could also have the unintended effect of ginning up progressive voters in Oregon, Nash noted.
Grace Beckman, a 22-year-old college student from Portland who is campaigning against Measure 106, said she’s concerned the anti-tax sentiment could resonate with voters, particularly independents or those with libertarian leanings who may be more concerned about taxes than reproductive issues.
‘“We’re seeing a real danger out there with the more passive voters who could be swayed,” said Beckman, who described the 2016 election as her own political awakening. “But it’s not a fiscal matter; it’s a backdoor ban on abortion.”
Oregon Life United failed to get enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in 2012 and 2014. Lawsuits from abortion-rights activists prevented them from gathering signatures for a ballot campaign in 2016.
This year the initiative narrowly qualified with 117,799 valid signatures — just 221 above the minimum needed.
While there’s no polling on this year’s ballot measure, Oregon voters have long supported abortion rights, defeating previous measures to prohibit state funds to be used to cover abortions in 1978 and 1986. In 1990, Oregonians rejected a proposition that would have required doctors to notify parents or a guardian if a minor was seeking and abortion, and in 2006 — the most recent attempt — they again rejected a parental notification measure.
Just last year, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who’s facing a tight reelection race, approved sweeping reproductive rights legislation considered among the most progressive in the country. The new law, the Reproductive Health Equity Act, requires Oregon health insurers to provide birth control and abortion at no out-of-pocket cost, and it directed state funding for those services to undocumented immigrants.
Brown’s Republican opponent, state Rep. Knute Buehler, voted against the 2017 law but says he supports abortion rights. Buehler said he will vote against the ballot initiative and “ensure that Oregon remains a pro-choice state.”
Nichole Bentz, spokeswoman for the Yes on Measure 106 campaign, acknowledged the state’s historic support for abortion rights is a challenge. But she said she hoped the measure would resonate with voters who believe women should be able to decide whether to have an abortion but don’t want their tax dollars to pay for it.
“We’re really concentrating on this being an Oregon issue and talking about Oregon tax funding and how this is being used,” Bentz said, adding that past failed ballot efforts have informed this year’s campaign and expanded the group’s support in the state.
The Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid program, spent about $1.9 million to cover the costs for 3,593 abortions performed in fiscal year 2017-18, according to state health department officials. The ballot measure wouldn’t affect funding for abortions deemed medically necessary or for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, which have long been exempted from federal funding restrictions. The measure would also allow funding for abortions to terminate ectopic pregnancies, when the egg is fertilized outside the uterus. A fetus cannot survive an ectopic pregnancy, and the complication can be life-threatening to the mother.
So far this year, the campaign opposing the measure has raised close to $1.3 million, nearly four times the roughly $330,700 raised by Oregon Life United’s political action committee, according to filings with the state. Abortion rights supporters say they’re determined to outspend and out-hustle the ballot measure’s proponents.
“The national context could not be more relevant in Oregon right now,” said Emily McLain, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon. “Every Oregonian is going to hear about the issue of abortion access more than ever before.”