After Losses, Pro-Life Movement Sees Need to Adjust Strategy for 2024 Referendums

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, every pro-life ballot referendum that has landed on a statewide ballot has failed. Alternatively, all statewide ballot initiatives to expand abortion rights have passed.

Voting booth
Voting booth (photo: Credit: Stephen Velsaso via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0), filter added / Flickr)

With nearly a dozen abortion-related referendums possible on state ballots in 2024, the pro-life movement is looking to adjust its strategy after suffering a string of referendum losses, including November’s 13-point defeat in Ohio.

“We need to get better at combating the lies of the abortion industry,” said Stephen Billy, the vice president of state affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which led the canvassing efforts against the Issue 1 abortion referendum in Ohio.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, every pro-life ballot referendum that has landed on a statewide ballot has failed. Alternatively, all statewide ballot initiatives to expand abortion rights have passed. 

In two states — New York and Maryland — pro-abortion ballot referendums are scheduled to appear on the 2024 ballot. In another nine states, both pro-life and pro-abortion groups are in the process of getting abortion-related referendums on the ballot for the 2024 elections. 

Pro-life Groups: Don’t Abandon the Fight

Following the defeat in Ohio, SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser sent out a memo saying the Republican Party has not invested enough in the fight against pro-abortion ballot measures.”

The memo said “many in the media and in the consulting class will claim that the election outcome means the [Republican Party] must completely abandon the pro-life fight in order to win in 2024 and beyond,” but that this is “a lazy analysis that ignores the facts on the ground.”

“[Republicans] must align [themselves] with the national consensus that already exists, which is limiting late-term abortion when the child can feel excruciating pain,” it continued. “Consensus protections for the unborn must also be paired with compassion and resources for women.”

Rather than backtracking on abortion, Dannenfelser said Republicans should embrace their pro-life values.

Dannenfelser said the party should ask supporters to ensure financial contributions keep pace with pro-abortion donors and change the focus of its rhetoric to portray the pro-life movement supporting and being compassionate toward women and the pro-abortion movement lacking compassion and pushing abortion on women.

Billy said the pro-life movement needs to work on better refuting the national media and newspapers, which have been deceiving voters about what the movement supports. He said there is “a lot of energy” and “a lot of effort” going into 2024. 

“After a disappointing night [in Ohio], I think there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic,” Billy added.

Stephen Krason, chair of political science at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and the director of its Human Life Studies Minor Program, was somewhat critical of the failed ballot efforts from pro-life organizations, telling CNA there is a need to “engage in an education effort” at a “renewed, maybe unprecedented [level].” 

The movement and Republican leaders, according to Krason, need to make a case against abortion, which defines human life as starting at the moment of conception, in a way “that will reach all realms of the population.”

“You have to confront and you have to educate, and you can’t be afraid to confront the opposition,” Krason said.

What do the Polls Show?

Some analysts, however, believe the pro-life movement’s shortcomings have more to do with public opinion being against them than it does with the debates over strategy. 

“The pro-life forces will have difficulty going forward,” Karlyn Bowman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who analyzes polls, told CNA. 

Bowman sees a disconnect between the pro-life referendum effort in Ohio and what the voters prioritize, which is “the power of choice [and] being able to choose.” She argued that the polling related to abortion, similar to that of COVID-19 vaccine mandates and laws related to smoking, showed support for “the power of personal choice and people wanting their personal choices respected,” which is a “powerful part of what we regularly would see in surveys.”

For the referendums that ultimately make it on the ballot in 2024, Bowman said she does not expect different results “apart from very conservative states,” noting that many of the pro-life losses happened in Republican-dominated states such as Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana. 

Where will abortion be on the ballot in 2024?

Referendums in Maryland and New York, two Democratic strongholds, will be on the Nov. 5 ballots in 2024. Both referendums would establish new rights in their state constitutions that guarantee a right to abortion.

In six states, there are proposed pro-abortion ballot referendums for the 2024 election, which have yet to be certified: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, and South Dakota. In four states, there are proposed pro-life ballot referendums for the election, which have not yet been certified: Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.

Bowman said “maybe a handful” of these proposals will make it on the 2024 ballots because it “isn’t that easy [to get referendums certified in many] states,” adding that “I don’t know whether all of these will qualify.”

What Happened in Other States?

About two weeks ago, voters in Ohio approved a referendum that enshrined a new right to “reproductive freedom,” including “abortion,” in the state constitution with 56.6% of people supporting the measure and only 43.4% of people opposing it. In an off-year election that brought out more than 3.8 million voters, the pro-life opposition to the amendment fell more than half of a million votes short of where it needed to be.

In the 2022 elections, proposed referendums backed by the pro-life movement failed in all three states where they were considered: Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana, all of which are normally Republican strongholds.

The proposals in Kentucky and Kansas would have clarified that the states’ constitutions did not protect a right to an abortion. The election was close in Kentucky, failing by less than a five-point margin, but worse in Kansas, failing by about an 18-point margin. The proposal in Montana, which would have given legal personhood to a child born alive after a failed abortion, failed by a little more than a five-point margin.

In Michigan, a Democratic-leaning swing state, voters passed a constitutional amendment via referendum to enshrine a right to abortion in the state constitution. This passed by a margin of 14 points — a slightly larger margin than Ohio’s proposal. Similar abortion referendums passed in two strong Democratic states, Vermont and California, by much larger margins. 

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