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Florida’s Abortion Access on Trial: State Supreme Court Weighs Proposed Ballot

Advocates for reproductive freedom have collected nearly a million signatures, more than enough to ask voters whether the state should be allowed to curtail abortions before 24 weeks of pregnancy. Conservative groups say the wording of the measure is confusing and are challenging it in court.

Photo: Florida Supreme Court via Wikimedia Commons

By Emily Fiorini-Casamayouret | MediaLab@FAU

Feb 9, 2024

In case you missed it, abortion may be on the ballot in Florida this coming November. 

That decision is in the hands of the predominantly conservative Florida Supreme Court, which this week began debating whether a proposed amendment that would allow abortion access up until viability – or around 24 weeks of pregnancy – can be put to voters in a referendum this fall.

On Feb. 7, Florida's Supreme Court heard arguments about proposed abortion access language, which Florida voters would be able to vote yay or nay on this November.  “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,” the proposed amendment states.

Whether or not Amendment 4 is allowed on the ballot impacts not just Florida, but is being closely watched across the country and seen as a bellwether for a growing movement to put the question to voters in about a dozen states. 

Opponents claim Florida's proposed abortion-rights amendment is deceptive, while proponents argue it's clear. Activists supporting Amendment 4 have collected close to a million signatures with the hope of putting it on the ballot.  If it passes, it will join other states that have upheld abortion rights since the overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022. The high court must issue a ruling by April 1. The outcome of the case underscores the sunshine state’s critical role in determining abortion access not just for millions of Floridians, but for thousands of women from neighboring states who have increasingly turned to Florida as options for pregnancy termination have been severely curtailed or outright banned.

We are constantly up against stigma, disinformation, and a changing legal landscape surrounding what should be a private, personal medical decision,” said Cheyenne Drews,  the Senior Communications Strategist for Progress Florida, one of the many organizations that support the “Yes on 4” ballot initiative. 

“Since June of 2022, when the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, political extremists have been working overtime to pass more and more abortion bans on the state level. Roe had been an essential step towards providing abortion access to so many patients, and it never meant access for all,” added Drews. 

In Florida, abortion is still legal for up to 15 weeks, although if that law is upheld, a six-week ban passed last year would soon go into effect.  Drews noted that someone seeking an abortion must also go through additional loopholes: they need to set two separate in-person appointments at least 24 hours apart, receive state-mandated counseling, and if they are under 18, obtain parental consent or the judicial equivalent. “Each of these are barriers to accessing health care that young adults often experience a disproportionate degree of harm from,” Drews said.

But considering the pattern that followed in other states’ efforts, such as California, Kansas, and Ohio, Drews feels optimistic. 

“In the seven states that have put abortion on the ballot since the fall of Roe, abortion access has won every time,” she said. 

“Young people grew up with a level of expectation around where and when they could access reproductive care, so to see this landscape shift so dramatically in a short amount of time has been immensely mobilizing,” Drews said. “Regardless of political affiliation, young people, like all voters, want the freedom to make decisions about their own bodies, families, and futures, free from political interference. We can expect young adults to send this as a resounding message in November when they vote Yes on 4, an amendment to limit government interference with abortion.”

Jane Caputi, a Gender and Sexuality Studies Professor at Florida Atlantic University, hopes that abortion rights will drive voters –  especially younger women – to the ballot box later this year. She argues that the discourse between abortion access and bodily integrity goes much deeper than people realize and questions why the government and others may want such power over a woman's body.  

“Women and girls are regularly subjected to sexual violence from abusive men and boys. We learn early on that this culture does not respect our bodies…and learn that again very direly when we want to control our fertility with birth control and abortion services [yet] are met with bans on these services,” she said. “Why should the government, as well as individual abusers dominate and control women’s and girls’ bodies? This is very unjust and does not recognize women’s human rights to life, autonomy, and health.”

Caputi said that lower-income women and other disadvantaged groups are already being disproportionately impacted by abortion restrictions. “Some of the most pressing challenges include just having access and affordable access to these services,” Caputi added. She pointed to a group of doctors who, in January, published a research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine, indicating that in 14 states where abortion is now banned, there have been more than 64,000 unwanted pregnancies caused by rape

“Why aren’t state governments working to end rape rather than to end abortion?” Caputi asked. “Many of those raped and pregnant women and girls, as well as other pregnant women and girls, do not have the funds to travel to another state where they could obtain an abortion.”

According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade County alone, there were 32,721 terminated pregnancies in 2023. That’s about 39% of the 84,052 total abortions in Florida last year, compared to the 82,581 in 2022. Due to harsher abortion laws and bans in neighboring states, 7,736 of these were from individuals from outside of Florida.

Caputi argued that much more than abortion access is at stake. 

“State bans also threaten the ability of family planning clinics to serve women as these clinics have their Title X federal funding threatened as they not only provide cheap birth control, tests for STIs [sexually transmitted infections], do cancer screening, and also counsel those who want pregnancy counseling, including telling them how to access abortion health care,” she said.

Organizations at the heart of the campaign to put the question directly to voters are feeling optimistic about the amendment making the ballot.  

“Our attorney made a strong argument for why our ballot language is clear and should go before voters,” Floridians Protecting Freedom said in a statement. “This language perfectly coincides with the reality that millions of Floridians want the state government out of their private health care decisions.”

Protestors in Washington, DC. (Photo: Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash)

A pro-life protest outside the Supreme Court. (Photo: Maria Oswalt via Unsplash)

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