The Abortion Ballot Initiatives to Watch on Election Day

Three states may change laws to restrict abortion access.

On election night, it's not just the fate of the Senate that is up for grabs. In North Dakota, Colorado, and Tennessee, voters will decide on three ballot initiatives that all tackle the question of when life begins.

The ballot initiatives all indicate a national trend to limit access to abortion. Between 2011 and 2013, state legislatures across the country passed more than 200 new abortion restrictions, a record for a two-year period. The new laws ranged from requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals to banning abortions after a specified point in pregnancy. Still, state legislatures have left some of the most controversial questions for voters to decide in this year's midterm elections.

In North Dakota, voters will choose whether to amend the state's constitution to define life as beginning at conception. If approved, Measure 1 would make North Dakota the first state in the country to recognize that all life "“ no matter its stage of development "“ "must be recognized and protected."

"If it passes tomorrow, it will be a boost of energy for the pro-life movement," says Keith Mason, the founder and president of Personhood USA. "While I expect a court battle, it is going to expose what the real problem in America is, and that is the tyrannical decisions from judges that have been overstepping their bounds."

Many contend that the initiative is a "personhood" bill because it expands the rights of the unborn, but advocates of Measure 1 are attuned to the controversy associated with such a name. Some supporters have disavowed the term "personhood" and argue that the initiative is merely a way to ensure that laws passed earlier, including a bill that outlaws abortion as early as six weeks after conception and another that requires minors to get parental consent before obtaining abortions, are constitutional under state law. Mason says the law still promotes the same goals Personhood USA has been working toward.

"I don't really care what different members of the coalition call it," he says.

Opponents of the law, however, say it is simply a veiled attempt to ban abortion.

"They are hedging their bets. They were pretty sure they would get the 20-week abortion ban, then their six-week abortion ban was challenged, and then they threw in a fetal personhood amendment to the voters," says Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a group that studies the impact of legislation on women's reproductive health. "It is almost like, pick your choice of how to ban abortion."

The law is similar to one that failed in Mississippi in 2011 after concerns mounted that the law could restrict access to fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization and even some kinds of birth control, although proponents argued that is not true. The most recent poll commissioned by local news stations found that 45 percent of voters oppose it and 39 percent support it. A large chunk "“ 16 percent "“ had yet to make up their minds.

In Colorado, a state that overwhelmingly rejected "personhood" amendments in 2008 and 2010, there is a more narrow attempt this year to define life at conception. Amendment 67 is still sponsored by Personhood Colorado, the same group that championed the previous measures, but the new law is intended to expand the rights of unborn children in Colorado's legal system. Efforts to pass the law have been nicknamed the "Brady Project" by some in memory of Heather Surovik's unborn baby, who was killed after Surovik was hit by a drunken driver. At the time, the driver was not charged in the death because Colorado law did not consider the unborn child a life. In 2013, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act, which increased penalties for those who cause the "unlawful termination of a pregnancy," but that was not enough for supporters of Amendment 67.

If money is any indication, however, Election Day does not look promising for supporters of Amendment 67. According to Colorado Public Radio, proponents have spent only $83,000, while opponents of the amendment have spent more than $1.7 million so far.

In Tennessee, the effect of a ballot initiative on access to abortion there is less clear. Voters will have an opportunity Tuesday to give their state lawmakers more power to change abortion laws in the state in the future, but nothing would happen immediately. The ballot initiative merely states that Tennessee's constitution does not protect a woman's access to abortion. However, opponents of Amendment 1 say it would open the door for state lawmakers to pass more-restrictive abortion laws similar to those approved in other states, including Texas and North Dakota.

Proponents say abortions in Tennessee are "unregulated" and need to be more tightly controlled. One poll of support for the amendment said the outcome was "too close to call," with 39 percent of Tennessee residents open to the change and 33 percent opposed.

Although women's health care issues have been part of the narrative of Senate races more broadly this cycle from Colorado to North Carolina, in these three states, voters will have a direct chance to cast ballots on abortion.