The results of Tuesday’s midterms marked a number of history-making elections for women: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York became the youngest person ever elected to Congress, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan broke barriers as the first Muslim women elected, Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of new Mexico made major strides for Native American women with their wins, and Jahana Hayes of Connecticut and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts became the first black women to represent their states.
But the historic elections aren’t just about who’s repping the country. New abortion laws, which were voted on in three states—Alabama, West Virginia and Oregon—have implications for women across the country. Two amendments passed last night are putting women’s ability to access safe abortions in jeopardy.
Alabama’s abortion measure, which passed by a wide margin, is major. The amendment to the state’s constitution is what’s called a “personhood law,” which grants the right to life from the moment of conception. Essentially, it means that in the state of Alabama, a fetus or embryo has the same rights as a full-fledged person.
“They’ve granted full rights to the unborn from the moment of conception—that means fertilized eggs—while they strip away all of the rights for pregnant women,” says Dr. Yashica Robinson, a gynecologist in Alabama and a board member of Physicians for Reproductive Health.
These laws are known as “trigger laws,” which means if Roe v. Wade is overturned, they could trigger an outright ban on abortion, criminalizing the procedure for women in those states.
The threat to women’s rights is bad enough, but abortion-rights supporters worry that the amendment might also jeopardize infertility treatments like IVF. “In any type of assisted reproductive technology treatment, most commonly in vitro fertilization, embryos are formed,” Dr. Robinson explains. “Generally, you’re going to form more embryos than you’re going to use.” What happens to those unused embryos is already a hotly debated issue and Alabama’s newly minted amendment could make the issue of disposing of unused embryos even murkier. “The way this amendment was written, it seems like it’s just about abortion but it clearly says that it protects the rights of the unborn—and that’s from the moment of creation,” Dr. Robinson says.
The approved amendment states that no provisions in Alabama’s constitution provide a woman with the right to have an abortion—no exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk.
For Dr. Robinson, that’s not only “devastating,” it violates her duty as a physician. “As a physician I’ve taken an oath to do what’s best for my patients. That means advocating for access to healthcare for them that values their privacy, their autonomy and their dignity,” she says. “My job, even when it’s a hard decision to make, is to counsel the patient and help them to make healthcare decisions that are best for them. [The amendment will] harm patients and bind the hands of physicians.”
West Virginia also passed a ballot measure that will restrict women’s access to abortion. Just like in Alabama, West Virginia’s Amendment 1 paves the way to criminalize abortion, stripping women of protections to their federal right to an abortion. The amendment also strips state funding for abortions, through insurance programs like Medicaid.
“Being able to pay for an abortion is a key part of being able to access an abortion,” says Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds. “The reason why abortion funds exist is because abortion is out of reach for so many.”
State laws that strip funding for abortion care, often disproportionately affect disadvantaged women, she says. “This is something that we consider to be discriminatory, something that targets people of color and people with lower incomes and discriminates against people based on the insurance coverage that people have.”
“We need legislators across the country to understand that abortion is healthcare, healthcare is a right, and a right is not a right if every patient can’t afford to access it.”
(Oregon voted on a similar ballot measure, which proposed ending state funding of abortion except when the procedure was medically necessary, but it was voted down by a wide margin.)
So, what does this mean for women’s rights to reproductive care across the U.S.? Alabama and West Virginia’s newly approved abortion amendments are important on a national level. Laws like the newly passed amendments in Alabama and West Virginia are known as “trigger laws,” which means if Roe v. Wade is overturned, they could trigger an outright ban on abortion, criminalizing the procedure for women in those states, the Washington Post reports. (In an NBC poll taken yesterday, two-thirds of voters supported keeping the landmark ruling that grants the right to an abortion in place.)
This possibility is what worries abortion activists the most. “It makes our work dramatically more urgent and important, because if that starts to happen, it’s going to make travel to get abortions even harder,” Hernandez says. “People are already traveling 100s of miles to get an abortion. This makes the legal right to abortion completely out of reach for too many. “
In other areas of the country, voters elected officials with track records of fighting for reproductive health like Jacky Rosen and Tina Smith (who is a former Planned Parenthood employee). “In 2018 voters made their voices heard loud and clear: they want elected officials who champion reproductive healthcare and will stand up for women,” Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement sent to Glamour.
Hernandez says those victories are cause to be optimistic about the future—she’s not giving up on healthcare funding that includes abortion care. “We need legislators across the country to understand that abortion is healthcare,” Dr. Willie Parker, board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, said in a statement sent to Glamour, “healthcare is a right, and a right is not a right if every patient can’t afford to access it.”