Abortion rights referendums are winning – with state-by-state battles over rights replacing national debate

The abortion landscape in the U.S. has been upended over the past five months, as many clinics offering the procedure have closed and people have traveled across state borders to obtain abortions where it remains legal. The percentage of people getting legal abortions has also dropped.

Division over abortion did not start when the Supreme Court abandoned constitutional protection for the right to have an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022 – but the decision did prompt referendums at the state level about whether abortion should be permitted or not.

Eighteen states, from Alaska and Arizona to Wyoming and Washington, allow voters to directly amend a state constitution through ballot measures.

Ballot measures – or referendums – could show the power of people’s direct vote in determining abortion law at the state level.

During the November 2022 midterms, voters added protection for the right to get an abortion to constitutions in California, Vermont and Michigan. Kentucky voters were asked a reverse version of this question – whether the state constitution should bar abortions. They said no.

Kentucky’s vote is similar to an August 2022 referendum on abortion that was held in Kansas. Fifty-nine percent of people in Kansas – a state with a history of anti-abortion policies and activism – voted to keep state constitutional protection of abortion rights.

As a scholar of reproductive health and justice, I think the referendum results in places often considered red or purple states, such as Michigan, Kentucky and Kansas, demonstrate just how varied and complex abortion beliefs and opinions are in the United States.

Ballot measures, perhaps in the short term, may provide one way to protect or restore the ability to get an abortion in states where the politics tend to skew conservative. Simply put, not all conservatives want to ban abortion.