Groups launch ballot drive on abortion rights
Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida
May 8, 2023
TALLAHASSEE — Taking aim at “government interference” in abortion decisions, a coalition of groups Monday formally began a drive to try to pass a constitutional amendment in 2024 to ensure abortion rights in Florida.
The announcement of the multimillion-dollar campaign came after the Republican-controlled Legislature this spring approved a bill that would prevent abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. It also came as the Florida Supreme Court considers a case that could undo decades of legal precedents about a privacy clause in the Constitution protecting abortion rights.
“Our rights and our freedoms are at risk,” Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said during a news conference in Tallahassee.
The proposal, spearheaded by the newly formed political committee Floridians Protecting Freedom, will seek to ensure abortion rights up to fetal viability, which has generally been interpreted as about 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis last year approved a law to prevent abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The new six-week limit is contingent on the outcome of the Florida Supreme Court case about the privacy clause in the Constitution. Supporters of the new law said six weeks is about the time fetal heartbeats can be detected.
Along with the ACLU, the coalition supporting the proposed constitutional amendment includes groups such as Planned Parenthood, Florida Rising and Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida.
After initial reports Friday about the initiative drive, the group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America issued a news release saying the proposal would “impose an extreme abortion regime.”
“Gov. DeSantis consistently acts on the will of the people who overwhelmingly support parental consent before abortion for minors and who want to protect babies with beating hearts,” Katie Daniel, state policy director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a prepared statement. “It is crucial that voters understand what is at stake in the pro-abortion left’s war on women, children and parents, and we are committed to exposing their extreme agenda in Florida and nationwide.”
Backers of the proposed constitutional amendment will need to quickly ramp up to get it on the 2024 ballot. They face a Feb. 1 deadline for submitting at least 891,523 valid petition signatures to the state. Also, they will need the Florida Supreme Court to sign off on the proposed ballot wording.
If the proposal reaches the ballot, the measure will need approval from 60 percent of voters to pass.
The process of gathering and verifying petition signatures is time-consuming and expensive. As an example, a political committee trying to put a measure on the 2024 ballot to legalize recreational marijuana had spent $30.35 million as of March 31, finance reports show.
While it appears increasingly likely that the recreational-marijuana proposal will meet the signature requirement — a state website showed nearly 787,000 valid signatures Monday — backers of the abortion initiative will have a far-shorter amount of time to collect and verify signatures.
During Monday’s news conference, Gross said the initiative will be a multimillion-dollar campaign, though she did not give a specific dollar amount. She said it will involve paid and volunteer petition-gatherers.
Speakers at the news conference repeatedly pointed to preventing government “interference” in private decisions about whether to have abortions. Floridians Protecting Freedom dubbed the initiative the “Amendment to Limit Government Interference with Abortion”
“No one is coming to save us,” Sarah Parker, president of Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida, said. “We must and we will save ourselves.”
The speakers included Shelly Tien, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the 15-week abortion limit passed last year by the Legislature.
That lawsuit has led to the Supreme Court considering whether to reject legal precedents about the state Constitution’s privacy clause.
Florida voters in 1980 approved a constitutional amendment that established state privacy rights. A 1989 Florida Supreme Court ruling set an initial precedent about the privacy clause protecting abortion rights, and subsequent decisions have followed that precedent.
If the Supreme Court finds that the privacy clause does not protect abortion rights, it would effectively allow the state to move forward with the new six-week limit. The Supreme Court has become far more conservative during the past four years, in part because of appointments by DeSantis.
Opponents of the six-week limit said it would be a de facto abortion ban because many women don’t know they are pregnant at six weeks.
DeSantis and lawmakers approved the six-week limit after the U.S. Supreme Court last year tossed out the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, effectively leaving abortion decisions up to states. Voters in some states, such as Kansas and Michigan, have supported abortion rights in ballot fights.