Oregon’s long support for abortion rights is being tested on November’s ballot by a group of determined activists pushing an initiative to prohibit state funding for most abortions.
On their website and campaign signs, supporters of Measure 106 use the tagline, “Your money, your choice.”
“This isn’t going to ban abortions,” said Nichole Bentz, the chief spokeswoman of the 'Yes on Measure 106' campaign. “So, if you want to get an abortion, you can still choose to have one. We’re just mostly talking about who is paying for one.”
But the architect of Measure 106 acknowledges his real goal is to reduce the number of abortions. And studies show that slashing Medicaid funding for low-income women typically leads to a rise in the number of unwanted pregnancies carried to term.
As a result, opponents say Measure 106, if approved, will make it much harder for many women to carry out their ability to choose an abortion.
“When this measure is talked about as a cost-saving measure, it skirts the issue that this is an attempt to ban abortion for low-income women,” said Grayson Dempsey, a leader of the opposition campaign.
The Guttmacher Institute, which has been allied with the abortion-rights movement, has conducted much of the country’s research on the impacts of abortion policy. A 2009 report looked at five studies on Medicaid funding bans and concluded that such laws “influences about a quarter of Medicaid-eligible women to continue unwanted pregnancies.”
Jeff Jimerson, a Corvallis graphic designer who has led a six-year effort to put Measure 106 on the ballot, said he is not familiar with that research. But he said he thought providing public funding for abortion did lead to more of them.
“When you offer something free to somebody, people will take something even when it’s not the best option for them,” he said.
Most of the country has already taken this step. The federal government bans Medicaid funding for abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or to save a mother’s life. About two-thirds of states have similar bans.
Oregon is one of 17 states that uses its own money to provide abortions to women eligible for Medicaid. Under Measure 106, the state constitution would allow funding for abortion only if a woman is in danger of death because of her physical condition or in cases where funding is required under federal law, which now includes rape and incest.
Measure 106 also would allow funding for abortion to end ectopic pregnancies, which occur outside the uterus and often lead to dangerous complications.
Oregonians decided decades ago not to follow the lead of the federal government. Voters rejected funding bans in 1978 and 1986. Oregon Right to Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion advocacy group, has steered away from similar ballot measures for fear of losing. Oregon Right to Life also isn’t backing Jimerson financially.
But he has persisted since launching his first petition drive in 2012. This time, he started more than two years in advance of the deadline for gathering signatures and won a spot on the ballot.
At a Corvallis church event in May, he described his crusade in emotionally charged terms: “Every day here in Oregon, 10 pre-born babies die because of taxpayer-funded abortion,” he said. “And keep in mind these are almost always healthy babies and healthy moms, often pushed into their abortions by boyfriends, family members or others."
Dempsey, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, said Jimerson’s rhetoric is “really disrespectful to women and their ability to make decisions on when and if to become a parent.”
For example, she says, many women who are initially excited to become pregnant find themselves running into serious medical complications for themselves or their child.
“What I bristle at certainly is the notion … that women aren’t the ones who should be making these medical decisions with their medical professionals,” Dempsey said.
In the last year, about 3,600 Oregon women had abortions covered by the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid. That cost taxpayers about $2 million.
The official cost analysis for Measure 106 says that costs would actually rise by nearly $10 million a year if the initiative passed. That’s because costs for “health care, food and nutrition services provided by state government programs” would rise if more pregnancies are carried to term.
In addition, the initiative also would prevent state employees from receiving abortion coverage through their health insurance. Measure 106 also appears to apply to tens of thousands of public school and local government workers.
Bentz, the Yes on 106 spokeswoman, said it’s fair to prohibit this coverage since the funding comes from taxpayers.
“They’ll still receive health care,” she said. “They just won’t have abortions covered.”
The state’s major public employee unions have joined the fight against the initiative, which they say is an attack on their workers and their benefits.
Since turning in signatures on July 6 to qualify for the ballot, sponsors of Measure 106 have raised less than $30,000, according to disclosure reports filed with the secretary of state.
In contrast, the opposition campaign, dubbed “No Cuts to Care,” has raised $640,000. That includes contributions from several Planned Parenthood affiliates as well as from the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and some of the state’s major unions.
At a time when abortion rights are under siege nationally, opponents make it clear they want to bury Jimerson’s insurgency in Oregon.
“If we’re complacent in thinking we’re the bluest state in the country on abortion rights, we’re going to find ourselves knocked off that very complacent pedestal,” Lisa Gardner, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon, said at a Portland event this summer. “And we don’t want to go there.”