Voters could decide the future of abortion access in Florida
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, advocates have turned their eyes toward Florida as a potential foothold for abortion rights in the Southeastern U.S.
The state bans most abortions after 15 weeks, but this fall a Florida Supreme Court decision is expected to trigger a six-week ban passed by the Republican-led state legislature earlier this year.
Now an effort is underway to protect the right to an abortion in Florida's constitution up to the point of fetal viability.
"As long as I have breath in my body, I'm going to continue to fight for freedom and liberation," says Trish Brown, who heads Power Up People, a local advocacy organization.
"I'm going to always continue to fight for being able to have control over my own body."
Brown is outside Florida's historic Capitol with other advocates hoping to raise awareness about the movement for a constitutional amendment protecting access to abortion.
It's been stormy most of the day, so the volunteers are packing up boxes of t-shirts, water bottles and paperwork, and heading to a local church to regroup and maybe wait out the storm.
Brown says if it were up to her, they'd stay and get soaked. The weather has dampened their plans for a rally, but she says it has never dampened her resolve.
"We wouldn't be out here fighting the way that we are if we didn't believe in what we're fighting for," Brown says.
That fight is happening all over Florida. In Orlando, after an on-stage call out from Hayley Williams, lead singer of the band Paramore, 1,300 people signed onto the effort. In Clearwater, a woman brought petitions to her choir practice and in Naples, another woman sought support from her book club.
"What we're seeing is that the volunteer component of this is absolutely massive and is going to garner us hundreds of thousands of petitions," says Lauren Brenzel, Campaign Director for Floridians Protecting Freedom—the group leading the push for the amendment.
So far, organizers say they've collected almost half a million petitions—nearly half of what they're aiming for. A total of 891,523 verified signatures are required to get the proposed amendment on the ballot and organizers know some will get thrown out.
Brenzel says the volunteer enthusiasm surrounding the campaign means something.
"It says that people are angry about political interference in their decisions about healthcare," Brenzel says.
"And they understand the gravity of that and it's speaking to the same thing we've seen nationwide, which is when you give decisions around abortion to the voters, they don't want politicians involved in those decisions."
Advocates see Florida as an essential access point in the Southeast
The movement isn't all grassroots. Floridians Protecting Freedom is getting help from more than a dozen advocacy organizations, including national groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
More national support is expected once the measure passes a state Supreme Court ballot language review. Then, it would take support from 60% of the voters who turn out in November of 2024 to change the state constitution.
"Floridians have made it clear that they don't want politicians interfering in their personal medical decisions," says Sarah Standiford, National Campaigns Director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
She believes the proposal will clear the 60% threshold. "That's clear from poll after poll."
A poll conducted in the lead-up to the recent legislative session by the University of North Florida's Public Opinion Research Lab shows 75% of voters either somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the state's six-week abortion ban.
And Standiford says there is more evidence that voters want to protect abortion in Florida.
In 2012, voters defeated a proposed amendment that would have specified Florida's constitution could not be interpreted to provide greater abortion protection than the U.S. Constitution.
"It's clear that the last time a question about abortion was on the ballot, Floridians voted to make private healthcare decisions without governmental intrusion," she explains.
But how voters feel is just one factor the organizers considered when launching this campaign.
They also considered the amendment process and Florida's regional importance—it's one of the only remaining Southeastern states that allows abortion after six weeks, which Standiford says makes access to abortion in Florida "particularly important."
During the recent legislative session, Florida lawmakers passed a six-week ban, but it hasn't gone into effect. It's pending a decision by the state Supreme Court on Florida's 15-week ban.
In the past, justices have held that a privacy clause in the state constitution protects access to abortion until viability. In a challenge going before the court in September, the justices, who are more conservative now than when that ruling was made in 1989, are expected to overturn that finding and uphold Florida's 15-week ban.
If that happens, the six-week ban will be triggered, creating what Brenzel describes as a "crisis point" for abortion in the South.
Data from the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration shows so far this year, 3,390 out-of-state residents received abortions in Florida out of 38,244 abortions reported.
If Florida's six-week ban goes into effect, people coming from places like Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama will have to travel farther to access care. Brenzel says it also means many Florida patients will have to travel to states with lesser restrictions.
"There are too many people across the state of Florida who are going to need to access abortion care and there aren't enough states that can be forced to absorb those patients," Brenzel says.
"Unfortunately, people in Florida are about to live in a reality that's going to make the consequences of these abortion bans very apparent and unfortunately that's going to be at the expense of Florida women."
Abortion opponents are proposing an amendment, too
At the same time, a proposed amendment to block abortion access in most cases is also moving forward. So far, state data shows about 16,000 people have signed petitions for that amendment headed by Mark Minck.
Minck says he has a lot in common with the people fighting to protect abortion access: Both sides want to amend the state constitution, both want help from voters to get their movements passed and both are responding to "discontentment with the Florida Legislature."
Minck, who was adopted, says that while the abortion landscape has changed significantly since 2018 when he started working on this initiative, his goal of protecting "unborn life" hasn't. It's something he thinks belongs in the state constitution.
"If we fail and we're not approved, at least we spoke on behalf of pre-born human lives that can't speak for themselves," he says.
Minck acknowledges that his amendment campaign isn't moving forward as quickly as the campaign to protect abortion access. He credits that in part to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which energized those in support of abortion access.
On the other hand, people who would usually support his campaign are still "high-fiving each other" over that reversal. In a way, Minck says, he hopes both measures make it to the ballot, so people can have a healthy debate and voters can have a choice.
He says he imagines Floridians in the voting booth with their ballot in hand and a decision to make: "Abortion access, or constitutional recognition of the right to life for the pre born."
Regan McCarthy is Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media.
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