Oregon is nationally known for its strong support of abortion rights. It’s the only state in the country that has not adopted any additional state restrictions.
But the debate over abortion could be in the spotlight in Oregon during this fall’s political campaigns. An obscure anti-abortion measure appears quietly headed to a spot on the state's November ballot. And Democrats plan to make abortion a major issue in the governor’s race, despite Republican nominee Knute Buehler’s proclaimed support for a woman’s right to choose.
“There are going to be people fired up pro and against,” said Jeff Jimerson, chief petitioner of an initiative that would prohibit the state from funding abortions for low-income women.
Jimerson, a graphic designer from Corvallis, has been engaged in a quixotic quest for the last six years to get his measure on the ballot.
Jimerson has had little money or high-powered political support. Even Oregon Right to Life, the state’s main anti-abortion group, has kept its distance from his effort, at least financially.
But this year, Jimerson finally seems close to the 118,000 valid signatures he needs to qualify for the November ballot, setting up a potential debate over the hot-button issue in November.
“I think it has more support than you might expect in a state like Oregon,” Jimerson said of his initiative. “There’s a lot of libertarians here, there’s a lot of people here who are sort of like, ‘Hands off, I don’t care what you do, just don’t make me pay for it.’”
Laurel Swerdlow, interim leader of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, said abortion-rights advocates are already assembling a coalition to fight the initiative if it makes the ballot.
This measure “would restrict access to health care,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, abortion is health care, and as we know here in Oregon, we believe everyone deserves access to the health care they need.”
The measure comes at a tense time for abortion-rights activists. The Trump administration is threatening the funding for Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit that is the nation’s largest provider of reproductive health care services, including abortions.
In addition, the slim U.S. Supreme Court majority upholding the landmark Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling currently depends on the continued service of two justices in their 80s.
“This is why it is important now more than ever,” Swerdlow said, “that we have leaders – that we have a governor – that will stand up and protect Oregon women.”
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon and NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon both endorsed Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, long a staunch advocate of abortion rights.
Brown last year further enhanced her standing with those groups — and further alienated anti-abortion activists — by signing a bill that requires health insurers to provide access to reproductive services without additional costs to patients.
The bill, which also provided abortion coverage for undocumented immigrants, gained national attention. Supporters called it a rebuke to the Trump administration and the strongest statement of support for abortion rights by any state in the country. Critics derided it as it as a “free abortion” bill that would encourage more women to have the procedure.
Republican Buehler walked a careful line as he ran in the primary of a party that has long had a strict anti-abortion plank. The physician and state representative from Bend frequently found himself under fire from anti-abortion activists as he campaigned for the GOP nomination.
“I’m pro-choice,” he told a questioner at one event in April, “but I’m not pro-abortion, and I think we should try to make abortion as rare as possible.”
When questioned about Jimerson’s initiative, Buehler didn’t take a stand. But he added: “I don’t support public financing of abortion … unless there is a medical need.”
Oregon is one of just 17 states that funds abortion for low-income women. Congress bars federal funding, except in limited cases. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, Oregon paid for 4,086 abortions at a total cost of almost $2.3 million.
Now, Buehler is talking to a general-election audience, and he seems to feel freer to emphasize his support for abortion rights.
“Oregon has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the country,” he said in a post-primary interview with OPB. “They existed before I was elected, and they will remain after I’m elected as governor.”
In the same vein, he now says he isn’t supporting Jimerson’s initiative. And he offers a broad definition of medical need.
“Abortion should be publicly funded if it’s determined between a woman and her doctor to be medically necessary,” he said.
Both before and after the primary, Buehler has sought to emphasize that he’s trying to find innovative ways to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies in Oregon, and thus the number of abortions. He sponsored a 2015 law that allows women to get contraceptives directly from pharmacists without having to go through a doctor. He’s claimed several times that it has “decreased abortions nearly 20 percent since that law has been implemented.”
But Buehler gets his figures by comparing the first three months of 2016 with the first three months of 2018. Using a longer period of comparison shows a much smaller decline in abortions in Oregon.
Several experts say it’s too early to say what impact the new program has made on the number of abortions performed each year. The rate has declined over the last two decades, both in Oregon and nationally.
Maria Isabel Rodriguez, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health & Science University, worked on an advisory committee setting up the new program. She said she believes the easier access to contraceptives will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, but proving that will take additional study.
“It would be ideal to carry out a cohort study where we’re directly comparing women getting care in the pharmacies versus traditional sources,” she said.
Buehler said you can “argue about the details of the statistics” but that he’s convinced it will be a “positive program.”
In any case, abortion advocates such as Swerdlow say it’s not enough for Buehler to describe himself as pro-choice. In an interview, she continually circled back to the bill signed by Brown last year that included no-cost abortion.
As President Donald Trump was pushing an anti-abortion agenda, she said, “there was an opportunity to be safeguarding abortion access here in Oregon and Buehler voted no.”
Buehler said he opposed the measure “not because of its abortion portion but because of the fact it was adding new benefits for new beneficiaries. It’s a fiscal argument.”
Buehler said he doesn’t see access to abortion under threat in Oregon.
“The governor and her team is focusing on this issue,” he said, “because they want to draw attention away from her failed record as leader of the state of Oregon.”
Instead, Buehler said he wanted to talk about such problems “as our education system, our lack of fiscal discipline and the mismanagement of the state government … You know, there’s good access to abortion right now. I’m not going to do anything as governor to change that set of circumstances. That’s not a big problem in my mind right now.”
Meanwhile, Jimerson says he’s planning last-minute mailings and other efforts to get the needed signatures for his initiative on abortion funding.
His group’s website posts regular updates, and it recently showed his forces have gathered 117,000 signatures. Jimerson said he figures he needs about 150,000 to ensure that he has the 117,578 valid signatures from registered voters required to qualify.
Even if he does, he knows the odds of succeeding in the fall are tough.
Voters defeated similar measures in 1978 and 1986. And three subsequent measures restricting abortion – the last in 2006 – also failed. For that reason, Oregon Right to Life, the state’s major anti-abortion group, has declined to finance Jimerson’s measure.
Lois Anderson, Right to Life’s executive director, said her group is instead focusing on supporting anti-abortion legislative candidates.
Oregon Right to Life sometimes helps candidates who say they are pro-abortion rights but are willing to consider some restrictions. Anderson said she doesn’t see that happening with Buehler.
“Since the primary, he’s just been very clear about his position,” she said. “He believes abortion should remain legal."
She questioned Buehler's strategy on this particular contentious topic.
“I actually think the position that Knute Buehler has carved out for himself is the worst possible political position," Anderson said. "Because he doesn’t get the benefit of those voters on either side.”