When Mona Reis began thinking about a ballot initiative to protect abortion access in Florida, Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land.
But Reis, who has been working in abortion clinics since the day after Roe was decided in 1973, was worried. She remembered what life was like before abortion access was protected.
Reis knew the U.S. Supreme Court had the opportunity to overturn Roe, which gave constitutional protection to abortion. She knew that Florida’s Supreme Court was also growing more conservative with the appointments of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A friend of Reis’ was working on an abortion rights ballot initiative in Michigan. Reis saw that as “the only way” forward.
Reis, 72, and other longtime abortion rights advocates worked on amending Florida’s Constitution to keep legislators from creating laws that restrict or delay abortion access before fetal viability.
Floridians Protecting Freedom launched in May. The group says it’s already gotten 700,000 Floridians to sign in support. Although it has so far raised nearly $9 million, the chance that the proposed amendment will make it onto a ballot is far from certain. The state has made qualifying harder in recent years and requires signoff from Florida’s Supreme Court. Also, the state’s attorney general opposes the group’s proposal.
Organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Florida, however, back the amendment proposal. Reis said many of those involved early on were women who grew up before the Roe decision.
She recalled the story of a friend who’d needed an abortion before it was legal and had been blindfolded and taken in the back of a car to meet a physician who would perform the procedure. The friend was safe, but having to access the abortion in such a secretive way traumatized her for years after, Reis said.
Florida in 2022 enacted a ban on nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and lawmakers this year passed a six-week abortion ban that is slated to go into effect pending a court challenge. The Florida Constitution has a privacy clause that has been interpreted to protect abortion access, but the DeSantis administration is pushing to overturn that precedent.
“We had a moral responsibility to try to think of a way that we could make certain that access to abortion care for women in Florida would be solidified,” said Reis, who founded an abortion clinic in Palm Beach County in 1980.
Making it on the ballot
Floridians Protecting Freedom launched the Monday after Florida’s legislative session adjourned. That was intentional. Campaign director Lauren Brenzel said the group didn’t want politicians to change the initiative process to try to stop the effort.
Florida’s process of getting a constitutional amendment is already higher than in many other states. Florida requires 60% of voters to endorse an amendment, rather than a simple majority. Conservative lawmakers have also made the process to get on the ballot more difficult and costly in recent years.
For instance, in 2019, DeSantis pushed for and signed legislation that requires organizers to pay petitioners by the hour, instead of per signature, making the process more expensive.
Still, progressive campaigns in the state have succeeded, including a 2018 amendment to restore the voting rights of people with certain felonies and one in 2020 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Before even getting on the ballot, the coalition needs to collect nearly 892,000 valid petitions. Because of their May launch, the organizers have less than a year to achieve that — but Brenzel said they will get it done. The group has spent nearly all the $8.91 million it has raised to date.
The amendment language also needs to make it through a Supreme Court review. The court can toss out the amendment if it believes it misleads voters or isn’t limited to a single subject. In the last five years, the Supreme Court tossed out four of nine ballot initiatives, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Before going public, the coalition repeatedly workshopped language. Barbara Pariente, a former Florida Supreme Court chief justice, worked with the group to make the wording “bulletproof.”
The language says that “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.” Florida statutes define viability as when life is sustainable outside the womb, which is generally considered to be at around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody penned an opinion piece last Friday saying she thinks the use of the term “viability” could have multiple definitions, previewing the state’s likely argument in court.
In a statement, Brenzel said Tuesday that Moody was presenting a “disingenuous argument by a politician desperate to block Floridians from voting on this amendment.”
John Stemberger, president of the anti-abortion group Florida Family Policy Council, also said his group is ready to argue that the proposed amendment is “deceptive.”
Volunteers drive the effort
A poll conducted by Florida Atlantic University last year showed that 67% of Floridians believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Unlike other states in the South, Floridians support abortion access more than they support abortion restriction, according to The New York Times.
Outrage at Roe’s removal has driven people to the polls in other parts of the country, even in Republican-dominated areas. Since Roe was overturned, abortion opponents have lost every state-level referendum battle to date.
Some of the petitions received by Floridians Protecting Freedom include notes: “thank you for doing this” scrawled on a yellow Post-it note or ripped-off piece of notebook paper, longer letters sharing stories from decades ago, questions about how people can help in their areas. A dedicated group of volunteers meets weekly to sort through petitions mailed to a P.O. Box in Sarasota.
Joni Steinberg, a retired public health professor and Sarasota resident, knew she wanted to help when she saw the abortion referendum in Kansas, where voters in the red state in 2022 rejected a proposed amendment that would have said there was no right to an abortion.
Steinberg remembers marching in New Orleans with her baby in support of abortion access some years after the Roe decision, but then said for “50 years it wasn’t as much an issue.”
Steinberg said she turns her week “upside down” to volunteer for the petition effort.
What comes next?
If the group is successful, the amendment will be on the 2024 ballot, where it is sure to face fierce opposition.
And by then, Florida’s abortion landscape may be very different: The Supreme Court is weighing a challenge to the state’s 15-week abortion ban. If upheld, the six-week ban would kick in.
In that legal fight, DeSantis’ administration has asked the court to overturn precedent and say the state’s right to privacy does not relate to abortion.
When the group started polling, the six-week restriction wasn’t yet on the table. Even then, people were primed to support the amendment, said Brenzel, the campaign director.
Reis walks around with petitions in her purse. She discusses it with everyone she sees, she said.
She said even people who would not have an abortion themselves support the effort because they feel strongly about limiting the government’s reach.
“Women do not want the government to continue to be in charge of their health care decisions,” Reis said.