‘Have you signed yet?’: Arizona activists battle to overturn near-total abortion ban

<span>Abortion rights activists in Phoenix last week.</span><span>Photograph: Liliana Salgado/Reuters</span>
Abortion rights activists in Phoenix last week.Photograph: Liliana Salgado/Reuters

As people streamed into the empanada restaurant, Susan Anthony made eye contact, pointing to her sign that asked whether they were pro-choice.

“Have you signed yet?” she asked patrons at the establishment in Mesa, Arizona. She carried a clipboard with petition sheets for a citizen’s initiative, a ballot measure that would put the right to abortion access in the swing state’s constitution.

Since the state supreme court ruled on 9 April that lawmakers in Arizona intended to fully ban abortion, the signatures have come in more quickly, Anthony said.

“No, but I’d like to.”

“I drove here to sign this.”

“I’ve been wanting to.”

“I’ve signed it, probably multiple times.”

“I’m going to tell my friend to come here and sign it.”

Starting the day the ruling came down, the Arizona for Abortion Access measure has seen its volunteers grow from about 3,000 to more than 5,000, spokeswoman Dawn Penich said. More than 5,300 small-dollar donors gave money for the first time since the ruling. The group is not giving out a new total update for the number of signatures, but Penich said that volunteers brought in 2,200 signatures to get notarized in one hour at a Phoenix coffee shop.

A handful of legislative Republicans have been scrambling since the ruling to try to peel back the outright ban, first passed there in 1864, before Arizona was a state, and instead reaffirm the more recent law, a 15-week ban. In the House, Democrats and a couple of Republicans could again try to force the repeal to a vote this Wednesday, the third attempt in recent weeks.

Related: California readies itself as ‘abortion sanctuary’ while Arizona gears up for ban

The battle for abortion access in this swing state will ultimately be decided on November’s ballot, where voters will likely face multiple questions. Democrats also hope the issue will turn out enough voters to flip the statehouse blue, and some Republican officials are now worried about how the ruling, which most of them wanted, will affect their political prospects. Those in swing districts and close races, including Donald Trump and the US Senate candidate Kari Lake, have spoken against the ruling despite previously supporting abortion bans.

In the house, efforts to move toward repealing the ban have so far failed, while the senate limped forward. A document detailing plans to derail the citizen’s ballot measure, accidentally sent to all lawmakers, floated the idea of sending three separate questions from the legislature directly to voters, bypassing the Democratic governor and confusing the issue at the ballot.

In the meantime, the 1864 ban could go into effect as early as 8 June. Democratic attorney general Kris Mayes has said her office will not prosecute providers over abortions at any point. And neighboring California is working to allow Arizona abortion providers a way to get licensed quickly there to assist their patients, anticipating more people will cross state lines for care.

Legislature in limbo

The abortion access measure would allow abortions without any limitations until the point of fetal viability, and access to abortion after viability if a healthcare provider determines it is needed to protect the patient’s life or physical and mental health.

The legislature has several routes it could take: doing nothing, and upholding the 1864 ban; repealing the ban, which would set a 15-week limit as the prevailing law; sending one or more questions to voters to set limits on abortion access.

The abortion access measure needs about 384,000 valid signatures from Arizona voters by 3 July to make the ballot and has reported collecting more than 500,000 so far. But the state applies strict scrutiny to citizen’s initiatives, with intense requirements for each signature and the people collecting them. In recent years, groups have sued, at times successfully, to remove signatures for various reasons in attempts to keep measures from reaching the ballot.

“We know the Republicans in the next three months are going to do everything in their power to try to take that initiative off the ballot,” former Democratic lawmaker and congressional candidate Raquel Terán said at an abortion rights rally last Friday. “So we should not count on just half a million – we need to turn in a million signatures or more. Do not stop. We cannot stop, not take any signature for granted.”

Lawmakers do not have to collect any signatures to put their questions to voters, and they don’t need the governor’s approval. Instead, they can vote to send any number of questions to the ballot directly.

But to get the repeal up for a vote, some Republican lawmakers would need to vote against their party’s leaders to override normal procedures – and they’ve so far been unwilling. Republican representative David Cook predicted that could happen this week, telling Phoenix public radio outlet KJZZ that there would be enough votes to alter rules and allow the repeal up for a vote.

While a few Republican lawmakers have said they think the ban goes too far, others have held fast to their support for it. The Center for Arizona Policy, an influential state organization responsible for lobbying for strict anti-abortion laws for decades, called on lawmakers to oppose any efforts to repeal the ban.

“Political posturing for the sake of votes and back peddling when faced with hostility only feeds voter cynicism at the cost of human life,” the group said in a statement.

House speaker Ben Toma, a Republican, has defended the ban and is not in favor of repealing it, despite the potential political consequences. Toma is now running for an open congressional seat in a crowded GOP primary where Trump has already endorsed one of his opponents. Toma is not currently available for interviews.

“It comes down to: what do I think is right? What is just? What is ethical? And I have made my decision. And I am not going to change my mind,” he recently told the New York Times.

Beyond the repeal machinations, Republicans are trying to figure out what, if anything, they should send to the ballot. The presentation of options, written by Arizona house Republican general counsel Linley Wilson, floated three potential ballot referrals:

  • A “complimentary (not conflicting)” measure that would include policies like only physicians being allowed to perform abortions and parental consent for minors seeking them. This would require the courts to consider it alongside the constitutional access measure.

  • A 14-week ban “disguised as a 15-week law” because it would outlaw abortion beyond the beginning of the 15th week of pregnancy. This “dilutes” the votes for the access measure and makes it more likely to fail.

  • A “heartbeat protection act” that makes abortion illegal after six weeks unless the mother’s life is at risk, the fetus has an abnormality or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

These paths change the narrative, Wilson wrote: “Republicans have a plan! And it’s much more reasonable than the (Arizona for Abortion Access) Initiative.” The plan could “pull votes” from the access measure.

Energy increases for ballot measure

At the Mesa restaurant, some people stopped by specifically to sign the petition, asking if there were other locations they could send their family and friends to. Some, carrying babies or holding toddlers’ hands, said they’d been meaning to sign and took a pen.

“I’ve had women come up with three kids, and they’re signing. And I tell them, moms are the most important signature here, because they understand what this issue is, and what pregnancy does to the body, what pregnancy does to your life,” Anthony said.

Others avoided eye contact or said they weren’t interested. Some said they weren’t registered to vote or simply didn’t vote. Some days, a person will stroll by and call her a baby killer. Anthony doesn’t engage – she’s not trying to convince the opposition right now; she’s trying to find the people already in favor of abortion rights and get them to sign.

After Roe v Wade fell, Anthony, a 69-year-old retiree, made it her life’s mission to get the Arizona abortion access on the ballot. Anthony, a lifelong Democrat, didn’t want to share her political leanings when she first moved to the red state of Arizona in the 1980s. Now she spends her days sitting at tables in restaurants and businesses, even at trailheads to snag hikers before they set off. Some hikers tell her she shouldn’t be there, that they’re just trying to enjoy nature; then others come up and say thank you.

Since the ruling this month, the energy has shifted. It’s “night and day”, with people seeking out places to sign the measure, Anthony said. At a shift at a bottle shop, college students posted on social media after signing and got more people to stop by. At a boutique in Scottsdale, in a wealthier area known for business-type Republicans, signers told her, this isn’t right, as they added their signature to the petition sheets.

The other side is going door to door and rallying at the statehouse, too. When Democrats tried to put the repeal of the 1864 ban up for a vote last week, anti-abortion advocates filled the gallery.

At an abortion rights rally last Friday evening hosted by a handful of left-leaning groups, Democratic officials detailed the importance of the ballot measure and voting for their party to take the legislature, win the US Senate seat and go for Joe Biden – a sign that abortion directly on the ballot influences how other races could go.

They made clear to a few dozen attendees: the ban is now in place because of Trump’s US supreme court nominees, who overturned Roe vs Wade. The 1864 ban is still in place because Arizona Republicans explicitly voted to keep it there as recently as two years ago. It hasn’t been repealed yet because legislative Republicans have blocked Democrats’ efforts to do so for years.

The backlash to the ban has taken aim at Arizona’s supreme court, too, where two justices are up for retention elections. A progressive group, Progress Arizona, is raising money for a campaign to oust Republican justices Clint Bolick and Kathryn H King.

“The fact is, even if we were to repeal this ban, that is not the end of the fight,” Democratic state representative Oscar de los Santos told the crowd. “This November, we have an election that isn’t merely a choice between two parties: it is a choice between two visions, between freedom and fascism, between hope and hate, between 1864 and 2024.”

Anthony hopes she won’t have to gather signatures for abortion access again. She thinks the measure will make it to the ballot this year, and from there, it’s up to the voters. But a lot of other factors are in limbo, like the rights of Arizonans to access abortion care in the state.

“I am most concerned at this point by anything that [Republicans] are going to put on there to muddy the waters, to confuse people,” Anthony said. “That’s what I’m concerned with. So I’m anxious to hear from our folks what the strategy will be come 3 July, when we deliver the boxes to the secretary of state. So what happens then? What are we doing then?”