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Other states’ ballot successes provide model for Arkansas abortion initiative

Arkansas could become the first Southern state to make abortion a constitutional right if voters approve the measure in November.

By Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate - February 02, 2024
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Abortion rights demonstrators

The thought of starting a family in a post-Roe world left Rachel Spencer feeling scared and powerless, so she decided to take action.

As a volunteer with Arkansans for Limited Government, Spencer is working to add a limited right to abortion to the state’s Constitution through a ballot initiative. 

“We can take that power back. We do not have to feel this way, because abortion is health care, health care should be private and intrusive policies from politicians have no place in our medical decisions,” Spencer said. 

Abortion became illegal in Arkansas when a state “trigger law” went into effect in 2022 following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Seven states have directly voted on abortion since then, with reproductive rights advocates finding success with all those ballot measures.

Ohio became the most recent state to guarantee the right to abortion in its constitution with 57% of voters approving the measure in November. 

The issue could be on the ballot in nearly a dozen states in 2024. Democratic-controlled legislatures approved measures for the November ballot in Maryland and New York, while citizen-led efforts are underway in nine states, including Arkansas, Missouri and Florida.

Arkansans for Limited Government is backing the Arkansas Abortion Amendment of 2024, which would allow abortion within 18 weeks of fertilization, and in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly or “to protect a pregnant female’s life or to protect a pregnant female from a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury.”

It’s important for Arkansas to build on the momentum seen in other states, Spencer said. As someone who has dedicated her life to building a better and more just South, Spencer said passing this citizen-led initiative would “mean the world” to her.

“In our world of increasingly polarized politics, it’s so easy to look at a region or a state and write that state off or to think that people in that state somehow deserve the political outcomes that they are receiving, and that’s just not true,” she said. “So I think it’s really exciting to have a chance as individuals, just as people that live here, to stand up and say, no. These politicians are not representing all of us, and there are amazing people in the South.”

Nationwide lessons

As Arkansas organizers look to build on the national momentum surrounding reproductive rights, they can learn from their counterparts in other states like Ohio, where Dr. Lauren Beene said building a “huge coalition” was key to their success.

Beene is a co-founder and executive director of Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights, a group that supported the ballot initiative to enshrine abortion in Ohio’s constitution. 

By working with a variety of groups, including political groups, religious organizations and members of the business community, Beene said the group was able to disseminate information widely and have plenty of “boots on the ground” during their signature collection effort.

While they encountered challenges, Beene said they stayed focused on “the why” of their work — their patients.

“If we didn’t fight for our patients’ rights, then we were very concerned that people were going to suffer and die and there was no way that we could not fight for that,” she said.

Involving physicians who shared “horrifying stories” about how legislation outlawing abortion affected patients was powerful, Beene said, because the first-person accounts provided a new perspective on the issue.

“That really made people realize that this is so much more than just being pro-life or pro-choice,” she said. “This is about people suffering true medical disasters because their care is delayed, and having that come from the person who actually saw it and then talking about, that is extremely effective.”

R Strategy Group CEO Jeff Rusnak agreed that physicians were important to Ohio’s success because they’re trusted sources of information who brought a nonpartisan aspect to the campaign. Rusnak was lead strategist on the physicians’ campaign, and he said people from several states have reached out to the physicians group following their November victory.

“Physicians don’t typically get involved in these kind of political battles, and so I think there’s a big opportunity there,” he said. “And a lesson for other states is how to tap into that, how to engage physicians, activate them and leverage that.”

In addition to involving physicians and keeping messaging nonpartisan, Rusnak advises others pursuing similar ballot initiatives to not back down in what can be a long, difficult effort. 

Some of those challenges, however, can be turned into opportunities, Rusnak said. For example, Ohio lawmakers last August sent a proposed constitutional amendment to voters that would have increased the threshold to pass an amendment from 50% to 60%. 

Ohio voters rejected lawmakers’ proposal, and Rusnak said that helped galvanize voters around the abortion amendment. Arkansas voters rejected a similar proposal from the Legislature to increase the threshold to approve ballot initiatives in 2022.

One advantage to the abortion amendment, Rusnak said, is people “understand what’s at stake and what the issue is.”

“No issue mobilizes and motivates people like this issue, and so I think everybody gets it, everybody understands it,” he said.

That said, Rusnak said it’s important to fundraise aggressively to support the team needed to run a successful campaign.

“You know that the opposition is going to throw everything they can at you, so it does take a coordinated and integrated campaign from a messaging perspective. You have to be able to deliver a focused message through all platforms and that’s expensive,” he said.

Next steps

The next challenge for supporters of the proposed Arkansas Abortion Amendment of 2024 is collecting 90,704 signatures from registered voters by July 5 to qualify for a statewide vote on the Nov. 5 general election ballot. 

As soon as Arkansas’ attorney general certified the proposed ballot language on Jan. 23, AFLG scheduled a rally Jan. 28 outside the Fayetteville Town Center where the group could begin its signature gathering effort.

Around 150 supporters attended the event, including Mary Lowe. The 74-year-old knows the importance of a good physician as someone who has experienced a lifetime of fertility issues. She said she’s worried restrictive abortion laws will prevent quality doctors from practicing in Arkansas. 

“These laws are necessary for the medical community to come to Arkansas,” Lowe said. “And even women that want babies, even people that are pro-life, you would think that they would want qualified OBGYNs taking care of their daughters and granddaughters.”

Opponents of the measure also attended the rally and held protest signs that read “Decline to Sign,” a reference to Arkansas Right to Life’s campaign encouraging voters not to sign petitions for the ballot measure.

Arkansas law only allows abortion to save the life of a pregnant person in a “medical emergency,” making it one of the strictest bans in the nation.

Democratic lawmakers proposed bills to add more exceptions during the 2023 legislative session, but none advanced. Proposed legislation included expanding the definition of “medical emergency” to include the health of the mother and creating exceptions for incest or when the fetus has a health condition “incompatible with life.”

One of those bills was sponsored by Rep. Nicole Clowney, a Fayetteville Democrat, who told supporters on Sunday that a majority of Americans and Arkansans are concerned about abortion access.

“If you think things in Arkansas have gone too far, you are not extreme…you are not alone and you are not helpless,” Clowney said. 

According to the 2023 Arkansas Poll, 38% of respondents said they favored laws that would make it easier for a woman to get an abortion and 29% said they favored laws that would make it more difficult. A quarter of respondents said they’d make no change to the law and 8% said they didn’t know. 

The poll was conducted through 801 phone interviews — cell phone and landline — with randomly selected adult Arkansans from Oct. 4-22. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5%.

Spencer said AFLG is working on its field strategy and will be deploying signature gathering efforts across the state. A 2023 law requires that signatures be gathered from 50 of Arkansas’ 75 counties. Previously, signatures only needed to be collected from 15 counties.

Spencer said the exciting thing about gathering signatures from 50 counties is it provides an opportunity to show how widespread support is for the measure.

“This is about building a future for all of our families where we feel secure in our ability to navigate complex situations and we feel secure in the future we are all aiming to build together,” she said.

This story was originally published in the Arkansas Advocate


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