Democrats in the Legislature want to ask Oregon voters to write the right to abortion, same-sex marriage and gender-affirming care into the state’s Constitution.
Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, introduced a joint resolution in the state Senate Wednesday to refer to voters a proposed constitutional amendment. The legislative referral would appear on ballots in November 2024.
The amendment would also repeal language that’s been in Oregon’s Constitution since 2004 defining marriage as being between one man and one woman (Article XV, Section 5a).
That policy hasn’t been in effect since a federal judge in 2014 ruled it unconstitutional — a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015, which required states to recognize same-sex marriages.
Planned Parenthood, ACLU Oregon and Basic Rights Oregon are campaigning for the proposed amendment, which has broad support from Democrats who control both chambers of the Oregon Legislature. Republicans in the minority just learned of the legislation.
Oregon already has among the strongest protections for abortion and civil rights for LGBTQ+ people in the nation. State laws bar housing and employment discrimination against gay and transgender people, allow for abortions with no specific gestational limit, and require state Medicaid and most private medical insurers to cover abortions and gender-affirming care.
The civil rights advocates say a constitutional amendment creates a more lasting guarantee of those rights, following a decision by a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Conservative and Christian activists have also pressed lawmakers to pass a slate of bills in other states under the umbrella of parents’ rights, which have taken aim at gender-affirming care, drag performers and transgender athletes.
“We don’t want Oregon to ever pass any kind of legislation like we’re seeing in other parts of the country that could strip away our right to exist,” said Todd Addams, interim executive director at Basic Rights Oregon. “We don’t want that to be a possibility without a huge, huge fight.”
Addams says members of the LGBTQ+ community in Oregon have wanted to remove the gay marriage ban from Oregon’s Constitution since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015.
Now, the national retrenchment on gay and transgender rights has created a new sense of urgency, with people questioning whether their marriages could be dissolved or they could lose access to medical care.
“This idea that their futures are completely up in the air, and could be stripped away at any moment, is this huge level of anxiety and fear in the community,” Addams said.
Republicans in the legislature were blindsided by the proposed constitutional amendment.
They suggested that the constitutional protections it affords would go further than its advocates have said. For example, they see it as providing a constitutional guarantee that minors can access abortion without parental knowledge.
“Democrats have come back with an attempt to seek retroactive approval of their extreme agenda. SJR 33 is a continuation of the Democrats’ extreme assault on parental rights. With this legislation, the Democrats now want to give 10-year-old girls a constitutional right to abortion without parental knowledge,” said Senate minority leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, in a written statement.
Oregon law allows minors aged 15 and older to provide consent to medical procedures, including abortions. A reproductive health care bill being considered in this legislative session would eliminate that age requirement for abortions.
That bill passed out of committee last week over Republican objections.
The proposed constitutional amendment does not explicitly address issues of parental consent or the rights of minors.
It also does not address the question of gestational limits to abortion. Oregon is among relatively few states with no specific limit based on the length of pregnancy.
Sandy Chung, the executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said the amendment would create constitutional “safeguards,” for abortion, but said whether that would block attempts to limit the procedure to a specific point in gestation is “a complicated question.”
Advocates said they are not aware of any current state or local laws in Oregon that would conflict with the amendment’s prohibitions on gender discrimination.
“If there’s a law at any level that would be violating this constitutional right or freedom, then people could go to court to challenge it,” Chung said.
Oregonians have in the past defeated a number of ballot initiatives that sought to restrict abortion. The equal rights amendment in the Oregon Constitution that civil rights groups are now seeking to build on was adopted by voters in 2014.