Abortion-rights groups in Florida want voters to reverse bans
Soon after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law in April that forbids most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a coalition called Floridians Protecting Freedom announced an effort to reverse the ban.
The coalition is seeking voter support for returning abortion rights allowed under the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. That would be until viability, or when a fetus could survive on its own outside of the womb, widely interpreted as about 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Florida used to allow abortions until viability, before the Legislature began approving tougher restrictions that started last year with a 15-week ban.
The bill signed into law in April by DeSantis would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. It will take effect only if the state’s current 15-week ban is upheld in a legal challenge before the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservatives.
The new law contains some exceptions, including to save the woman’s life. Abortions for pregnancies involving rape or incest would be allowed until 15 weeks of pregnancy, provided a woman has documentation such as a restraining order or police report.
The latest statewide poll on abortion shows a large majority oppose the six-week ban. About 75% of registered Florida voters polled in March by the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab poll either somewhat or strongly opposed the six-week abortion ban. That included a majority of Republicans — 61% — who opposed the ban.
The coalition of groups seeking the proposed constitutional amendment include the ACLU of Florida, Planned Parenthood, Florida Rising and Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida. They will need nearly 900,000 valid petition signatures to get it on the November 2024 ballot. They face a Feb. 1, 2024, deadline to get signatures to the state. The Florida Supreme Court will also need to approve the proposed ballot wording. At least 60 percent of voters must approve it for it to pass.
"It's a different way of allowing citizens to have their voice," said Daniel Smith, chair of the University of Florida’s political science department. "That is a direct method as opposed to an indirect representative function of electing individuals."
Over the years, Florida voters have approved constitutional amendments like banning smoking inside workplaces, boosting the state’s minimum wage and restoring voting rights to former felons.
These can be reversed, too. In 2000, voters approved a statewide high-speed rail line, only to then cast enough ballots to scrap the train project four years later.
Because passage of any constitutional amendment requires 60% approval, it requires bipartisan support.
Said Smith: "You can't get there with just Republicans. You can't get there with just Democrats. You can't even get there with just Democrats and no party affiliate [voters]."
Kat Duesterhaus, the founder of an abortion-rights movement called Bans Off Miami, views abortion as a non-partisan issue.
"This is an issue of believing that there should be boundaries with the government and the boundaries being our bodies," Duesterhaus told WLRN at a recent event to gather signatures for petition forms in support of the ballot effort.
Some anti-abortion groups, however, are continuing their fight for a ban on all abortions.
Andrew Shirvell, founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, said his group wants Florida to be "abortion-free."
“The newly-enacted Heartbeat Bill, if and when it goes into effect, does not go far enough in protecting innocent lives because it arbitrarily and capriciously deems many unborn children unworthy of legal protections," he said in a statement after the six-week bill was signed into law last month. "The fact is, the Heartbeat Bill will not make Florida abortion-free."
He also said in a separate statement that his group would fight against the ballot initiative. "In the months ahead, Florida Voice for the Unborn will draw attention to the radical nature of this proposal, and we will do everything we possibly can to dissuade Florida voters from signing the petition," Shirvell said.
Recent abortion-rights efforts in other states have been successful. Voters in Vermont, California and Michigan have voted in favor of abortion rights amendments to their own state constitutions. In Kansas, voters rejected a proposal on the ballot that would have allowed lawmakers to tighten restrictions or ban abortion altogether.
The Floridians Protecting Freedom coalition needs to collect enough signed petition forms from registered voters to equal 8% of the votes cast in the last presidential election. They need 891,523 signatures for the 2024 ballot, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
"We recognize that this is a huge task," Duesterhaus said. "We’ve got a lot of work to do."
If it makes it on the ballot, the item would read: "No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider. This amendment does not change the Legislature’s constitutional authority to require notification to a parent or guardian before a minor has an abortion."
Signed petition forms must come from half of the state's 28 congressional districts. The coalition has paid petition gatherers, but is also depending on help from volunteers around the state.
Volunteers join online trainings each week to learn how to collect petitions.
Sara Latshaw, the deputy political director at the ACLU of Florida, said another challenge facing the petition group is the cost of the campaign. A law passed in 2020 requires non-volunteer petitions gatherers to be paid a salary or hourly wage.
"What might have cost $4 or $5 million in 2018 is now three or four times that much, from a paid position perspective," Latshaw said. "It's going to be a multi-million dollar campaign. It will be very expensive to run, but we've had an outpouring of support in terms of donations. In our first 10 days, we raised $2 million."