Like many things associated with abortion, last nights results were complicated.  Two seemingly contradictory things happened:

1.  Strong pro-life candidates did well and strong pro-choice candidates did poorly–often because of their positions on abortion.

2.  Personhood ballot measures suffered two more landslide defeats.

From National Right to Life, to the Susan B. Anthony List, to Americans United for Life, pro-life organizations are giddy this morning. And with good reason. Those who ran on the idea that working toward justice for prenatal children is part of a war on women went down to defeat. The poster child for this strategy was the Democratic candidate for governor in Texas, Wendy Davis. Despite oodles of outside money from pro-choice groups, and a virtually unprecedented level of friendly coverage from national media, Davis lost badly–and even lost women by five points.

In one of the surprises of the evening, Colorado Democratic senator Mark Udall was defeated by Cory Gardner. Some (including,  apparently, his entire political team) thought Udall could coast to victory simply pointing out that his opponent was strongly pro-life and part of a war on women. But the Denver Post claimed that this singular strategy “backfired” and was one of the major reasons for his unexpected loss. Another surprise was Kay Hagen’s “devastating” loss in North Carolina. She also spent much of October marshaling the war on women narrative and even had Planned Parenthood publicly claim that reelecting her was their number one priority.

Having gained control the Senate, pro-life groups rightly believe that Republicans can now pass legislation that was previously held up by Harry Reid. (We should watch carefully to see if they do, in fact, do this. I remain skeptical about small government conservatives pushing for laws which significantly impact on the personal freedom of individuals.) Indeed, Americans United for Life quickly rattled off a list of pro-life bills that have been passed by the House but blocked by the Senate. Here are four important ones:

  • Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act prohibiting abortion after 5 months of pregnancy (i.e., 20 weeks gestation);
  • No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act applying the restrictions on abortion funding found in the Hyde Amendment to all federal funding streams and requiring that all plans offered through the ACA Exchanges disclose if abortion coverage is included;
  • Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act­ prohibiting sex-selective abortions;
  • Protect Life Act ensuring that no funds appropriated or authorized through the ACA can be used for abortion or insurance plans that provide abortion coverage;

Each of these bills has the strong support of the electorate, so, if they are passed by Congress, President Obama would be under immense pressure keep his veto pen dry. I think they are likely to become law if Senate Republicans decide to make them a priority. This, as I said above, remains to be seen.

What does not remain to be seen, however, are the fates of the two personhood ballet initiatives voted upon last night. In Colorado, the measure–though doing slightly better than the last two times around–lost badly: 63% to 37%.  Even in extremely pro-life South Dakota the measure lost 64% to 36%. Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups put huge resources into defeating the measures, and–perhaps not without reason–were able to convince the voters in CO and ND that such legislation would not only impact abortion, but also contraception and in vitro fertilization.

What are the lessons to learn about abortion politics from what happened last night?  There are many, but let me highlight three:

1.  The “war on women” narrative is on its last legs. Pro-life groups have done a good job of marginalizing the “legitimate rape” crowd and letting women speak for themselves. It turns out they are more skeptical of abortion than are men. Those who want to see justice for our prenatal children ought to press that advantage, creating even more space for groups like Feminists for Life, Women for Nonviolent Choices, and Women Speak for Themselves to be the faces of the movement. Doing so will rightly highlight the fact that we need not choose between the good of women and of their prenatal children–and could actually expand pro-life concerns in a bipartisan way, including things like expanded and paid maternity leave, nondiscrimination for women in the workplace, and more affordable child care.

2.  The country remains eager to pass abortion restrictions. 1.2 million abortions every year, often simply for reasons of birth control (90% of prenatal children who are found to have Down Syndrome are killed via abortion, for instance), is simply not where the country is right now. The states continue to pass abortion restrictions at incredibly high rates, and the GOP ought to be able to team with pro-life-friendly Democrats in building a large, stable, and powerful coalition in crafting legislation that incrementally builds legal protections for the most vulnerable members of our community. Indeed, if they work hard at building such a coalition, the margins supporting some of the bills could be veto-proof.

3.  About the only thing that can stop this momentum–especially as disproportionately pro-life Millennials and Hispanics continue to take their rightful places of power in our country–is the pro-life movement itself. When it forces ballot measures and even legislation which allow its opponents to shift the conversation to abortion in the case of rape, or when the mother’s life is in danger, or even to contraception and in vitro fertilization…well…we saw what happened with the CO and ND ballot measures. Equal protection of the law for the prenatal child must be our ultimate goal–fundamental justice for the most vulnerable requires no less–but there is a way to do this that builds on the pro-life momentum in the country, and there is a way to do it which distracts and even detracts from that momentum.