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Abortion on the Ballot: Will Floridians Get a Chance to Choose?

A movement to put the question of abortion rights to Florida voters garnered more than enough signatures to be put to the people in November as a referendum. Conservative groups say the wording is vague. The state Supreme Court will decide by April 1.

Pro-life and pro-choice protests. (Images via Unsplash)

By Emily Fiorini-Casamayouret | MediaLab@FAU

Mar 29, 2024

Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade two years ago this summer, abortion rights have become a political battleground, polarizing Americans as never before. In Florida, pro-choice activists are fighting to put the question on the ballot, while pro-life advocates are hoping the state’s Supreme Court will reject the measure altogether.

Movements are afoot in at least 13 states to put constitutional amendments on the ballot in November. Here in Florida, abortion opponents say the referendum as worded is too vague.

As of next Monday, Floridians will know whether a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution will be allowed on the ballot. The state’s Supreme Court has until April 1 to issue a ruling, leaving activists on both sides of the issue waiting in nervous anticipation.

Despite collecting more signatures than the required 891,523 to put abortion rights on the Florida ballot, getting Amendment 4 to appear on the ballot on Nov 5 is far from a done deal. Opponents want to block the question being put directly to voters across the Sunshine state. Florida’s Republican Attorney General, Ashley Moody, asked the state’s Supreme Court bar the amendment, arguing that it was complicated and lacked clarity about the viability of a fetus outside the womb.

Meanwhile, as the battle over abortion continues at the state level, decisions in nearby states are also being felt in Florida. Alabama's Supreme Court ruled in February that embryos are considered “extrauterine children,” raising concerns among those involved in IVF about their legal status. In 2021, the CDC found that 2.3% of all infants born in the United States were conceived through assisted reproductive technology, also known as ART. 

Given that ART accounts for a significant number of births, Alabama’s recent decision that IVF embryos are children makes the Florida Supreme Court decision that much more intensively anticipated. More than 7,000 women traveled to Florida in 2023 for abortion care, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

One of the organizations pushing for states to take a pro-life stance against abortion access is Liberty Counsel. Holly Meade, the organization’s Vice President of Media, explained why they’re against putting the proposed referendum on the ballot. 

“The ballot initiative purporting to ‘Limit Government Interference with Abortion’ should be excluded from the Florida ballot because it is directly and blatantly in violation of Florida law regarding the initiative process,” said Meade in an interview. “If a conforming initiative did make the ballot, we are fully confident in the electorate’s ability to vindicate the human rights of the unborn child and strike down such an unjust initiative.”

Liberty Counsel vehemently opposes abortion on religious grounds. “We are hopeful that not only will the Court allow Florida’s six-week abortion ban to go into effect and correct a longstanding error in the interpretation of the Florida Constitution’s privacy clause but that they will affirm the personhood of unborn children from the moment of conception,” said Meade. 

With their “Yes on 4” campaign, a statewide effort launched by an alliance of pro-choice organizations, Floridians Protecting Freedom is determined to see abortion rights put on the ballot this November. Lauren Brenzel, Floridians Protecting Freedom’s campaign director, said she sees her mission as informing voters about their opportunity to limit government involvement in women's reproductive care. With many supporters actively contributing to the organization, they have confidence that the measure will pass – as long as it actually gets on the ballot.

“We are grateful to have a strong base of support and volunteers across the state who helped us gather close to a million verified signatures to ensure we’ll be on the ballot,” says Brenzel. “Now, we’re working with them to gear up for the next phase of the campaign.”

Interpretations of the referendum’s language has been a major point of contention between the two camps. 

“The Florida Supreme Court’s role in the process of determining ballot placement is a strictly technical review, not a substantive one. They don’t weigh in on the merit of the proposal. Their only role is to determine if the proposed amendment deals with a single subject and is clear and unambiguous,” says Brenzel. “Our brief highlights the limited role of the Court’s review per Florida’s Constitution and the clear and unambiguous language of the ballot summary satisfying both the constitutional and statutory requirements.”

Brenzel said Floridians Protecting Freedom represents a broad swath of Floridians. A poll published by the University of North Florida indicated that over 62% of Floridians would vote “yes” on abortion rights, including 53% of Republicans.

 “We have everyone from grassroots organizers and healthcare practitioners to reproductive policy experts and constitutional lawyers,” said Brenzel. “That collaboration shaped the proposed ballot initiative to meet the needs of Floridians and will be key to ensuring its passage in November.”

But the issue may be more complex than popular support would indicate. Dr. Kevin Wagner,  an American Politics Professor and Associate Dean at Florida Atlantic University, explained why referendums in Florida can be complicated.

“In the state of Florida, the process of getting a referendum on the ballot is a multi-step procedure. Citizens or interest groups first submit a proposed constitutional amendment to the Florida Department of State. Once approved, the next step involves gathering a predetermined number of valid signatures from registered voters across the state,” says Wagner. “The Florida Supreme Court is the final check to make sure the language is clear and not confusing or otherwise complies with Florida Law. If that is approved and if the signature threshold is met, the proposed amendment makes its way onto the ballot for consideration during the next general election.”

Like any political process, though, it has its critics. “Conservative Republicans may express opposition to this process due to concerns about potential abuse or manipulation of the system. Some argue that direct democracy through referendums can lead to hasty decisions,” says Wagner. “There's a worry that emotionally charged issues could be exploited through this process. Since conservatives have had majorities in the state government, that’s their preferred path.”

However, more considerable challenges are at play than just loopholes and process manipulation. “Legal challenges may arise based on constitutional rights, privacy considerations, and potential conflicts with federal laws,” says Wagner. “Politically, navigating the polarized landscape surrounding abortion can result in heated debates and protests. Balancing the rights of individuals with differing beliefs, ensuring access to reproductive healthcare, and maintaining legal clarity pose ongoing challenges for lawmakers.”

Floridians are expected to get an answer from the state’s Supreme Court at 4 p.m. on Monday, April 1.

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