Advocates hit milestone in push to get abortion-rights question on ballot

An abortion-rights activist at the National Women’s March on Phoenix signs a petition in February to put an initiative on the November ballot to preserve abortion rights in the Arizona constitution. Advocates said this week that they have collected more than 500,000 signatures on the petition. (File photo by Marnie Jordan/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Activists said this week that they have collected more than 500,000 signatures to put an abortion-rights initiative on this fall’s ballot, giving organizers a 100,000-signature cushion already with another three months before petitions are due.

Besides working against the calendar, advocates are also working in the shadow of the Arizona Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a ruling that could return state law to a near-total ban on abortions. The Arizona Abortion Access Act could trump such a ruling by enshrining abortion rights in the state Constitution if approved by voters.

“The Supreme Court will be ruling any day now, however this is a constitutional amendment that will supersede that,” said Dawn Penich, a spokesperson for Arizona for Abortion Access. “Regardless of what they decide … our campaign will proceed as is, nothing will change in the language of our campaign.”

Advocates, who need to turn in 383,923 voters’ signatures by July 3 to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, said the response since they began collecting signatures last year has been enthusiastic.

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“Since our signature gathering efforts began last fall, we have amassed a grassroots network of well over 3,000 volunteers across Arizona, from Bullhead City to Nogales, and hundreds of communities in between,” said campaign manager Cheryl Bruce in a press release from Arizona for Abortion Access. “Voters are eager to sign this petition and have a direct say in restoring abortion access this November.”

Pro-Life Arizona declined to comment Wednesday on the petition and calls seeking comment from the Arizona Life Coalition and a group called It Goes Too Far Arizona, were not immediately returned.

But in previous statements, It Goes Too Far has argued that the proposed amendment “is written so broadly that, according to attorney analysis, it allows unlimited abortion up to birth underneath a broad mental health exemption that is frequently abused.”

Arizona is one of several states where advocates are pushing to protect abortion rights under state law after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which overturned a federal right to abortion recognized almost 50 years earlier in Roe v. Wade.

Some states have instituted near-total bans on abortion since the Dobbs ruling, and Arizona changed its law to prohibit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy – compared to the 24-week threshold that had been in place under Roe.

Abortion opponents argued that Arizona still had a 19th-century law on the books criminalizing abortion except when needed to save the life of the mother. That law was put on hold by Roe, but never repealed.

The Arizona Supreme Court heard arguments in December on which law should take precedence, the 15-week limit or the total ban, but it has not yet issued its ruling.

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That ruling would not matter if the constitutional amendment is approved, prohibiting any state law that restricts abortion prior to “fetal viability” – which the National Institutes of Health puts at about 24 weeks after conception.

Penich said her organization and its volunteers will continue to gather petition signatures up until the July 3 submission deadline. Chris Love, a campaign spokesperson, said the success of the petition drive so far is “a testament to how popular reproductive freedom and protecting abortion access are among Arizona voters.”

The campaign got a high-profile boost last month when state Sen. Eva Burch, D-Mesa, took to the Senate floor to announce that she planned to get an abortion after numerous ultrasounds earlier this year determined she had a “non-viable” pregnancy. The first-term lawmaker has been an outspoken supporter of reproductive rights, which she said “is the issue of our times.”

“People of all backgrounds utilize abortion services in Arizona,” Burch said in a written statement Wednesday. “There are countless circumstances under which someone may find themselves in need of abortion care, and we all know and love someone who has had an abortion.”

Advocates said they have heard a range of stories relating to abortion as they collect petition signatures across the state, an experience one volunteer in Maricopa County called “motivating,”

“People are excited to sign and many thank us for being out here,” said Susan Ashley, the volunteer. “It’s amazing to hear the stories people share as they sign, especially from mothers and grandmothers who say it’s unacceptable that their daughters and granddaughters have fewer freedoms than they did.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Martin Dreyfuss expects to graduate in December 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Dreyfuss is a published journalist and poet, with experience in social media, play-by-play, management and content creation. He began working at age 10, when he began building his work ethic and professional experience in restaurants, sales and esports origination management.