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
Arizona reproductive rights advocates have officially taken the first step toward protecting abortion access, filing an initiative for the 2024 ballot on Tuesday.
The initiative, entitled Arizona for Abortion Access, is the culmination of a monthslong effort to enshrine the procedure as a right in the state constitution. If it makes it onto the 2024 ballot and Arizona voters approve it, ongoing attempts from anti-abortion groups to further restrict access to the procedure would be nullified.
“Every Arizonan should have the freedom to make decisions about their bodies, their lives, and their futures,” said Chris Love, senior advisor for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, which helped develop the initiative. “We know the work for achieving reproductive freedom is an uphill battle, and this ballot initiative is the next critical step in our renewed drive to protect the health and freedom of our patients and our communities.”
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What’s the current state of abortion in Arizona?
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion last year and sent the question back to the states, multiple GOP-led states, including Arizona, moved to tighten access to abortion care.
Republican lawmakers in the Grand Canyon State passed a 15-week limit in 2022, and, shortly after the Dobbs decision, GOP state leaders went to court to restore a near-total ban from 1864.
Ultimately, a state appeals court ruled that the 2022 law supersedes the 1864 near-total ban. But anti-abortion activists appealed that ruling earlier this year, and while the state’s newly elected Democratic leaders have refused to defend it in court, its return remains a possibility.
Another law yet to see its day in court is one passed in 2021 that bestows personhood on all fetuses, effectively outlawing every abortion. The law was previously blocked by a federal judge under the precedent set by Roe v. Wade and is currently on hold until later this year, though since Roe has been overturned, the law may end up going into effect. A provision in that same law that bans abortions for reasons of genetic anomalies in the fetus was reinstated in January.
For now, women in Arizona can obtain an elective abortion up until the 15-week mark unless their decision was made based on the fetus’ genetic anomaly. After that time, only women facing imminent danger to their lives can receive an abortion. The law includes no exceptions for rape or incest.
An executive order issued in June by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs bars county attorneys from prosecuting abortion law violations, assuaging some of the worries of abortion providers. But that order is likely to see legal challenges in the future from outraged county attorneys, and it doesn’t constitute a long-term solution in a state that has long been a Republican stronghold. The Republican-majority legislature has continued to push for increased restrictions on abortion access, and reproductive rights advocates are hoping a citizen-approved constitutional amendment will prevail where lawmaking hasn’t.
What does the initiative do?
The Arizona Abortion Access initiative would add a right to abortion in the Grand Canyon State to the state’s constitution. Such a change can only be approved by voters, and has a high bar to meet before making it onto the 2024 ballot.
Campaigns seeking to amend the constitution must gather signatures amounting to 15% of votes cast in the state’s most recent gubernatorial election. That number is currently set at 383,923 signatures, and a spokesperson for the Arizona Abortion Access campaign told the Mirror they’re aiming to collect more than 500,000 signatures to ensure a buffer against those that will eventually be rejected during verification.
With just under 10 months until the petitions are due in July 2024, the campaign is optimistic about its ability to meet the signature requirements. A previous attempt to pass a constitutional amendment last year, launched shortly after the Dobbs opinion was leaked in May and with just weeks to go before the July deadline for submitting petition signatures, ultimately failed to reach the signature threshold, largely due to time constraints.
The campaign is aiming to begin gathering signatures in September, after any necessary edits to the initial draft have been finalized. The total cost for the campaign, including signature gathering and getting the final version onto the 2024 ballot, is estimated to be upwards of $40 million, based on the costs of similar initiative efforts in other states.
Several reproductive rights groups, including the ACLU of Arizona, Affirm Sexual and Reproductive Health, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, NARAL Arizona, Healthcare Rising Arizona and Arizona List are involved in the campaign, which makes for greater funding opportunities.
The proposed amendment would bar any law or policy from restricting or denying a person’s access to abortion care before the point of fetal viability without a “compelling state interest,” defined as an evidence-based law designed with the patient’s health in mind that doesn’t “infringe on the individual’s autonomous decision making.”
It also would prohibit any interference with patients seeking an abortion after the point of fetal viability when a health care professional has determined the procedure is necessary for the patient’s physical or mental well-being.
Fetal viability, the point at which a fetus can survive outside the uterus, was the standard baked into Roe v. Wade and is generally considered to be around 23 or 24 weeks of gestation, but a spokesperson for the campaign told the Mirror the exact timeline would ultimately be determined by the courts.
What are the reactions?
Hobbs, a staunch proponent of reproductive rights, celebrated the move and expressed confidence that Arizona voters will support the initiative. Government interference, she said, has no place in the private medical decisions of Arizonans.
“I’ve been a lifelong advocate for Arizonans’ reproductive freedom, and I’ve repeatedly said that I do not believe the government or politicians should be in the business of making personal healthcare decisions,” she said in an emailed statement. “I’m confident that Arizonans will vote for reproductive freedom next November.”
A 2022 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization, found that as much as 62% of Arizonans support legalizing abortion in most or all cases. And a survey commissioned by NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion advocacy organization, found that 90% of Arizonans were opposed to government interference in their medical decisions.
Anti-abortion groups were outraged by the news, criticizing it as inhumane and extreme. Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale-based law firm fighting to reinstate the 1864 near-total ban, denounced it for allowing procedures after fetal viability.
“The proposed Abortion Amendment goes far beyond Roe v. Wade — the broad exceptions to post-viability abortions would allow for dangerous and inhumane abortions through all nine months of pregnancy,” he said in an emailed statement. “The proposed initiative also endangers minors and strips parents of involvement in their child’s healthcare.”
The initiative doesn’t include any age restrictions on who can receive abortion care. Surveys from the Arizona Department of Health Services consistently find that a minority of women who seek abortions are under 18. In 2021, the most recent year for which there is data, nearly 27% of women who received abortions were 30 through 34 years old and only 7.9% were aged 15 through 19.
Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy Action, which opposes abortion and has often backed legislation to restrict it, similarly criticized the initiative’s criteria for allowing a post-fetal viability abortion as too lax.
“The measure deceitfully first includes the limitation of viability, then nullifies it with broad, nearly universal exemptions that allow stress to be reason enough for a late term abortion,” she said in an emailed statement.
Trinidad Rivera, a member of Healthcare Rising Arizona, characterized the initiative as a grassroots push to restore the rights of Arizonans.
“When the Supreme Court took away our right to abortion last summer, that was another example of healthcare being taken away from us,” she said, in a press release announcing the campaign launch. “Now, we have a chance to do something about it – a chance to take back our rights.”
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