In the State Elections, Pro-Life Victories Amid Enduring Divisions

Voters in two states approved pro-life constitutional amendments.

Freshman members of the 116th Congress, their staff and loved ones arrive for a group photo on Capitol Hill Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C.
Freshman members of the 116th Congress, their staff and loved ones arrive for a group photo on Capitol Hill Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C. (photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images)

The recent midterm elections may not have reflected a decisive shift in Americans’ dominant political attitudes, but voters have delivered some key victories — and at least one defeat — on issues of concern to Catholics, especially in terms of abortion.

Voters in two states — West Virginia and Alabama — approved amendments to their state constitutions, eliminating any mandate for state funding of abortions.

In addition, the West Virginia amendment declares that abortion is not an inherent right, while the Alabama version positively affirms the right to life. The West Virginia measure passed on a vote of 52% to 48%. The margin of victory was higher in Alabama — 59% to 41%.

Such amendments are somewhat uncommon in this election cycle, making the votes important victories. Four years ago, Tennessee passed a pro-life amendment to its state constitution. Before that, the last time a similar measure succeeded at the state level was in Arkansas in the late 1980s, according to Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee. “It hasn’t happened a lot, really,” Tobias said.

These amendments pre-empt any attempts by those states’ supreme courts to claim there is a right to an abortion in their constitutions, according to Greg Schleppenbach, the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Such an attempt succeeded earlier this summer in Iowa, where the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of expanded abortion access based on an interpretation of the state constitution.

“Looking at state constitutions and rulings of state Supreme Courts is a very important part of ensuring that states are able to protect unborn children in a post-Roe world,” Schleppenbach said.


Some Pro-Life Setbacks

However, there were some pro-life defeats in the midterm election. In Oregon, a measure to block state funding of abortions failed.

In terms of state elected officials, there was no “seismic shift” for or against protecting unborn children, according to Tobias. Democrats did gain ground, seizing the U.S. House of Representatives on the national level (see related story) and taking seven governor seats in the states.

But despite the Democratic Party’s pronounced pro-abortion-rights tilt, an increase in Democratic governors does not necessarily translate into more pro-abortion policies, according to David Cloutier, a moral theologian at The Catholic University of America. The Democrat governors-elect in Minnesota and Kansas — Tim Walz and Laura Kelly — campaigned as moderates and are unlikely to be as hostile to Catholic values as more liberal members of their party, according to Cloutier.

The more liberal wing of the party is represented in governors-elect like Illinois’ J.B. Pritzker, who contributed to Planned Parenthood’s state political action committee, and Jared Polis, the first openly homosexual man elected to a governorship, in Colorado — a state that has already been a key battleground over religious freedom. “That’s going to make life for Catholics in Colorado difficult,” Cloutier said.

Another state where Catholic causes may be imperiled is New Mexico, where the new governor, Lujan Grisham, is in favor of assisted suicide, Schleppenbach noted. In the 2017 legislative session, an assisted-suicide bill was narrowly defeated in the New Mexico Senate on a 20 to 22 vote.

The issue also could surface in other states, such as New Jersey, according to Schleppenbach.

And there are quite a potential number of states where assisted-suicide bills could be introduced: Compassion and Choices, a leading pro-assisted suicide organization, has organized volunteer efforts in about two-thirds of the states.


Dealing With Divisions

In states where a single party controls the government, faithful Catholics may find themselves compelled to cross party lines, according to David Upham, an associate professor of politics and the director of legal studies at the University of Dallas.

That means that in Republican-controlled states, Catholics may need to balance out single-party government by voting for Democrats who will defend the social safety net. Conversely, in Democratic-run states, Catholics should seek out Republicans who will stand up for life, marriage and religious liberty, according to Upham. 

Divided government, on the other hand, could lead to progress on some issues of importance to Catholics. “In some Midwestern states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa — Democratic success in the governor’s races, coupled with continued Republican control of the legislature, might provide an opportunity for some genuinely bipartisan legislation, especially on behalf of the poor,” Upham added.

Polls show that Catholics themselves were divided in the election. According to the Pew Research Center, Catholics were nearly evenly split, 50% to 49%, between Democrats and Republicans. That’s only a five-point shift from the 2014 midterms, when 54% of Catholics went for Republicans.

“I myself would certainly not look at those numbers and say that that was a noteworthy shift,” Cloutier said. “It seems like Catholics just moved along with the rest of the population a little bit to the left.”

Ultimately, the country seems to remain as polarized as ever, making it difficult for Catholics to work for the common good. Cloutier said the nation is in a cycle of constant war in which each side wins two years with a narrow majority of the vote only to have the opposing side come back with an equally narrow majority.

Such polarization, he said, makes it difficult to address problems facing the country, including abortion. Conservatives may achieve a victory in passing restrictive abortion laws that the current Supreme Court may uphold, but there are limits to such a strategy, Cloutier warns.

“Some success will be achieved, but the backlash against that success will be enormous,” Cloutier said. “Whether you can sustain that success requires that the nation become less polarized overall. If the nation continues to be polarized overall, you may win a battle, but you can’t sustain the victory of the battle.”

Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.