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Oregon Court: Anti-Choice Ballot Initiative Wording Is Too Fuzzy

Nicole Knight

"Any vote cast in support of this ballot initiative would be denying the ability of low-income Oregonians to access abortion services," said Michele Stranger-Hunter, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon.

A proposed Oregon voter initiative must state more clearly that its overarching effect is to deprive the state’s low-income residents of abortion care coverage, the state supreme court ruled last week.

The decision represents a win for the half dozen reproductive rights advocates who petitioned the court. They argued that the ballot language failed to adequately say how the proposed measure, which amends the state constitution to eliminate public funds as a source of payment for abortion care, effectively limits the procedure to those with private health insurance.

The proposed measure permits the use of public funds for abortion care in only a few exceptions, such as life endangerment.

The anti-choice group, Oregon Life United, is still gathering the 117,578 signatures needed to put the initiative, Stop Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act of 2016, before statewide voters.

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Last week, a panel of the state’s highest court ordered Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to modify the ballot initiative verbiage after the petitioners challenged the language in specific sections, including the title and caption.

“We applaud the court for recognizing that bans on abortion coverage interfere with a woman’s personal decision making,” Michele Stranger-Hunter, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon and one of the petitioners to the court, told Rewire in an email. “We look forward to the attorney general revising the ballot language to reflect that this initiative would deny women abortion.”

The Oregon Constitution protects the right to abortion care, and the Oregon Health Authority covers abortion care for pregnant people who typically make no more than $1,800 per month. In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the Oregon Health Plan paid for 3,556 abortion procedures, down from 4,105 in 2002-03.

“Any vote cast in support of this ballot initiative,” Stranger-Hunter continued, “would be denying the ability of low-income Oregonians to access abortion services.”

The state attorney general’s office is charged with crafting ballot language. Kristina Edmunson, communications director for the attorney general, told Rewire in an email that the office was reviewing the court decision and making the revisions.

Writing to the court, the state attorney general acknowledged that reduced access to abortion “is a direct and inevitable result of the funding restriction.” However, Rosenblum continued, “[v]oters will likely understand that individuals who rely on public funds for abortions will have restricted access to abortions if those funds are unavailable.”

The judges disagreed, ordering Rosenblum to flesh out the ballot measure’s caption to explain how it would ban the use of direct and indirect public funds for abortion care.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia restrict state funding of abortion care to cases of life endangerment, rape, and incest, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Oregon does not. The use of direct federal funds is illegal in all 50 states except in rare circumstances.

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