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The coming abortion battle

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If you’re wondering what political issues aren’t top of mind for most Oregonians but may get there in coming months, abortion should rise to attention.

It’s worth considering now, ahead of the upcoming primary election, for this reason:

Sometime in the next few months, likely in or near June, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which is widely expected either to overturn the long-standing Roe v. Wade ruling or wipe out most of its effect, with the result of allowing states, as many have started to try to do already, to effectively outlaw abortion. Neighboring Idaho is one of the states moving in that direction.

All of that is driving abortion-related activity from red states to the blue. The Boise-based Planned Parenthood organization in Idaho has leased office space across the Snake River in Ontario, evidently intending to provide services there for Idahoans who will no longer be able to get them in their home state. The pressure in Oregon will grow for providing those services – maybe especially in parts of the state where the pro-choice view isn’t popular.

Oregon has, over the last couple of decades, moved firmly in the pro-choice direction. The legislature, with gubernatorial support, has supported the right to abortion with increasing specificity, especially in a 2017 law (the Reproductive Health Equity Act) which even effectively makes many abortions free of financial cost to the patient.

Whether that’s the end of the story in Oregon may depend on how the elections go. If either of the major Democratic nominees, Tina Kotek or Tobias Read, win in November, they would be unlikely to change Oregon’s law or policies in that area, other than maybe to adjust existing principles to new conditions on the ground. Kotek was endorsed by the Planned Parenthood PAC of Oregon, which said she is someone “who will champion bold policies that expand access to reproductive health care for Oregonians and anyone who might be forced to travel to our state for care.” Read’s views appear to be similar to Kotek’s.

Independent candidate Betsy Johnson seems to be in the same territory. She remarked recently that “I am pro-choice and Oregon will remain a pro-choice state when I am governor.”

The Republican candidates are a far more complicated story.

Asked about support for an Oregon counterpart to the fetal “heartbeat” laws, which involve private rights of action (critics call it bounty hunting) passed in Texas and Idaho, Republican candidate Christine Drazan said that, “I’ve never shied away from my pro-life values, but a private right of action is a dangerous precedent that could just as easily be used to curtail constitutional rights that conservatives value.”

That stand on the heartbeat law may make her an outlier among the Republican contenders. Most have not explicitly gone public on the subject, but there are some data points to work with.

Oregon’s oldest (formed in 1970, before Rose v. Wade) and largest pro-life group, Oregon Right to Life, has endorsed at least four Republican candidates: Drazan, Bob Tiernan, Bridget Barton, and Bud Pierce. Since the group relies on candidates to spread the word of endorsements, there could be others who haven’t remarked about it directly.

One candidate non-endorsee who seems displeased about it is Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, who seems to have gone the furthest among the Republican candidates in declaring he would act broadly against abortion if elected. “Oregon is a taxpayer-funded abortion tourist destination,” he said. “Politicians are more concerned with propping up the abortion industry than actually helping women and children. It’s time we recognize the value of the unborn by protecting their right to life in our laws. As governor, I would propose and support any common sense limits on abortion that are allowed by current Supreme Court decisions.”

Probably, however, any of the Republican candidates if elected in November would face enormous pressure from their base to do whatever he or she could to push back against Oregon’s state legislative policy.

And how much could a governor do?

A governor can’t unilaterally change the law, and the chances of the Oregon legislature changing enough in this election to do that are nil. But a governor can make a difference.

Bear in mind that Texas Governor Greg Abbott didn’t need or ask for legislative backing recently to block for searches of traffic from Mexico: He did it administratively. In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown used extensive emergency powers to impose restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. What powers might a Republican governor attempt to use to limit, or hamstring, abortion in Oregon?

We don’t really know for sure. But if one of the Republicans does prevail in November, we may find out.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
 

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