A protester holds a sign at an abortion rights rally at the state Capitol on May 3, 2022. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror
As Arizona teeters between abortion access and increased restrictions, reproductive rights advocates are hoping voters in 2024 will guarantee the right to abortion in the Grand Canyon State.
Amy Fitch-Heacock is a co-founder of Arizonans for Reproductive Freedom, which is spearheading a ballot initiative effort to enshrine abortion access in the state’s constitution. That initiative has been under development since last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s leak in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case revealed it intended to overturn Roe v. Wade.
While the organization’s initial attempt failed to make the 2022 ballot, Fitch-Heacock said it remains committed to putting the choice to voters in 2024, amid restrictive laws and mounting threats from the courts on the horizon.
“(We are) focused on getting the work done to have an initiative that will remedy all of the unjust abortion laws,” she said.
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Women in the state can currently access abortion care until 15 weeks, after which only emergency procedures are legal. But the court ruling that preserved that limited time frame is likely to be appealed by Scottsdale-based anti-abortion group Alliance Defending Freedom next week.
The group has already secured a victory in a separate case, reinstating a ban on all abortions provided because of a genetic abnormality in the fetus. That case also includes litigation over a fetal personhood law that is currently blocked, but is set to see renewed appeals in July.
All of the whiplash over the status of reproductive health care in Arizona could be resolved by a constitutional amendment, Fitch-Heacock said. To succeed, the amendment proposal needs to file at least 383,923 petition signatures — equivalent to 15% of the votes cast in the 2022 gubernatorial election — to make it onto the ballot in the first place, after which voters will choose to approve or reject it.
The most immediate threat to abortion access in Arizona is an expected decision out of a Texas federal court as soon as Feb. 24, which abortion advocates fear will result in the rescinded FDA approval of mifepristone, one of two pills that patients use to induce an abortion. If that happens, Fitch-Heacock expects she and other organizations involved in drafting the ballot initiative would need to shift the language to focus on protecting surgical abortion access.
While an appeal of the FDA authorization challenge would follow, it would be heard in another conservative court in Louisiana, and from there the path only leads to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under current FDA standards, mifepristone is used in conjunction with another medication, misoprostol, to induce abortions up to 10 weeks. The legal challenge in Texas, which is backed by 24 states and was filed by Alliance Defending Freedom, would move that approval back to the 7-week standard set in 2016 and force more patients to seek surgical procedures that critics warn are more invasive, expensive and less accessible.
Fitch-Heacock fears it would worsen the outlook for women in Arizona, who are already hampered by mandatory ultrasounds, 24-hour waiting periods, and a scarcity of clinics. There are only 9 clinics that provide abortion care in the entire state, and only three are located outside of Maricopa County.
Abortion advocates had pinned their hopes on the election of Democratic leaders to protect access, and to some extent, that hope was realized. Gov. Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes succeeded staunch anti-abortion predecessors Doug Ducey and Mark Brnovich — the former signed the 15-week limit into law and the latter fought in court to ban abortions completely. Hobbs and Mayes, meanwhile, have both vowed to protect access, but each has little power to reverse already restricted access.
Even so, Fitch-Heacock said, even just their pro-abortion stances are encouraging enough, and allow organizations like hers to breathe a sigh of relief that no new roadblocks will be placed in their path forward.
“Knowing that we have somebody who is at the helm who is not willing to acquiesce to non-science-based legislation is very important,” she said.
“We are excited to finally be able to work in partnership with statewide leaders who share our values and our belief in reproductive freedom for all Arizonans,” echoed Brittany Fonteno, president of Planned Parenthood Arizona.
Mayes, who inherited Brnovich’s role in the ongoing court cases to further limit abortion access, has refused to continue defending his positions, prompting GOP leadership in the state legislature to request to intercede. Mayes also recently added her name to a letter sent to Walgreens and CVS in support of their policies around offering mifepristone at select clinics, alongside with nearly two dozen other Democratic attorneys general. That letter followed a threatening one from a slate of Republican attorneys general warning them to desist.
And Hobbs has repeatedly touted her promise to veto any new legislative proposals that seek to infringe on reproductive rights.
“I’ve made a clear commitment that I’m not going to sign any further restriction on accessing reproductive healthcare,” she assured members of abortion advocacy organization NARAL Pro-Choice on Feb. 21.
That includes recent GOP proposals that critics have warned represent an attempt to backdoor in fetal personhood, by allowing pregnant women to drive in HOV lanes on Arizona freeways or offering them child tax credits. Josselyn Berry, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, called the HOV measure “inane” and told the Arizona Mirror that Hobbs supports increasing child tax credits for “children who are actually alive,” as was included in her executive budget proposal.
Any effort to repeal abortion bans passed before her tenure or enact new protections via the legislative process would require a Democratic majority, however. And Hobbs appears to have her eye on that goal, announcing earlier this week that she intends to flip the legislature to Democratic control in 2024 with a $500,000 contribution.
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