Initiative launched to put abortion protections on voter ballots in November
Arizona voters may get a chance to keep abortion legal even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
An initiative drive launched Tuesday would put a "right to reproductive freedom" in the Arizona Constitution. That would cover all matters related to pregnancy.
More to the point, the measure would bar state and local governments from interfering with that right. And that ranges from contraception to elective termination of a pre-viable fetus, defined as one who has a reasonable chance of surviving outside the womb, with or without artificial support.
It also would allow abortions at any stage of pregnancy "if necessary to preserve the individual's health or life."
Backers have an uphill fight.
It takes at least 356,467 valid signatures on petitions to put a measure on the November ballot. Given the normal error rate, most groups give themselves at least a 25% margin, making the actual total closer to 450,000.
More to the point, the deadline is July 7.
That's just 51 days from when the initiative drive started. More to the point, that translates out to having to gather more than 8,800 signatures each day.
But Shasta McManus, treasurer of Arizonans for Reproductive Freedom, told Capitol Media Services that abortion rights advocates have no choice but to shoot for a November vote rather than wait until the 2024 election.
"Women in Arizona, they don't have two years to wait," she said.
"This is something that needs to be done now," McManus continued, saying that if abortion again becomes illegal in Arizona — the result if Roe v. Wade is no longer considered precedent — "we're going to have lost lives, we're going to have lost livelihoods."
The filing comes two weeks after Politico published a leaked draft opinion which shows a majority of the justices are ready to void the historic 1973 ruling which said that women nationwide have a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy prior to the point a fetus is viable. That is generally considered under current medical standards to be somewhere between 22 and 24 weeks of pregnancy.
A final ruling is expected by late June.
If the court follows through, that would return the right to regulate abortion to each state.
In Arizona, Cathi Herrod, president of the anti-abortion Center for Arizona Policy, said it would immediately reactivate the law the law that was on the books in when Roe was decided in 1973 — and remains there — but which the state has since been unable to enforce.
That law, a version of which dates back to territorial days, says anyone who uses any method to cause a miscarriage must be sent to state prison for at least two but not more than five years. The sole exception is to save the life of the woman.
"The laws on the books right now in Arizona are archaic and are barbaric," McManus said.
"If we don't do something about it now, women in Arizona will be put at risk," she said. "And so will health providers."
Gov. Doug Ducey told Capitol Media Services he believes a law he signed earlier this year outlawing abortion after 15 weeks would supersede that statute, a contention disputed by Herrod.
But in either case, that still would be more restrictive than the rights Arizona women now have because of the 1973 ruling.
"Our coalition, which comprises of activists, physicians, patients and community members all across the state, we couldn't just sit by and do nothing and let this happen," McManus said.
There has not been a poll about abortion rights in Arizona since the leaked decision.
But a national poll released this past Sunday by NBC News found that more than 60% said they believe it should be legal in at least some circumstances. That includes 37% who want it legal at all times and another 23% who say it should be legal most of the time.
By contrast, the NBC poll found 32 percent want abortion illegal with exceptions. Only 5% say there should be no exceptions.
Herrod, however, told Capitol Media Services she believes this specific proposal would fail at the ballot box in Arizona — if it gets that far.
"The drafted measure goes too far," she said.
Herrod is focused on the language that says an abortion is allowed at any point during the pregnancy "when necessary to preserve the individual's health or life."
"The exceptions basically would allow an abortion for any reason," she said. "The terms are vague and undefined."
Herrod acknowledged that at least two generations of Arizona women have come of age during a time when they had the legal right to terminate a pregnancy. But she said she remains convinced that Arizonans, given the chance to actually weigh in on what the law should be here, will choose to reject this proposal.
"The nearly 50 years have taught us that life is a human right, that life does begin at conception," Herrod said. And then there are ultrasound images which show the development of the fetus at various stages.
"And everyone knows someone who was hurt by abortion," she said.
McManus, however, said it is the experience of Arizonans since 1973 that will convince them they do not want to return to the way things were before.
"We believe that this is something that gets people up and gets people moving," she said.
"Women of all generations, those that have worked on this in the past, those who never even realized that it could be taken away are ready to hit the battlegrounds on this," McManus said. "And we believe that push and that attention is what's going to carry us over the finish line."
If the measure makes the November ballot it will not be the first time Arizonans have been able to weigh in on the issue.
Abortion foes put a measure on the 1992 ballot which would have prohibited all abortion except to save the life or the mother or in cases where rape or incest had been reported. It was defeated by a margin of greater than 2-to-1.
Gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin said he would not answer whether his boss, a foe of abortion, supports the right of Arizonans to decide if they want to keep abortion legal here.
"Why would you be asking a question like that of a governor whose views on abortion are well known?" he asked. Karamargin also said that, at this point, the question of the ballot measure is "hypothetical."
"We're not going to comment on hypotheticals," he said.