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More than 500 medical professionals back AZ Abortion Access Act

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More than 500 medical professionals back AZ Abortion Access Act

Jun 11, 2024 | 5:27 pm ET
By Gloria Rebecca Gomez
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More than 500 medical professionals back AZ Abortion Access Act
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Dr. Candace Lew, a practicing OB-GYN for 40 years and the chair of the Arizona for Abortion Access Campaign, speaks to the media during a June 10, 2024 press conference in Phoenix. Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror

Hundreds of medical professionals are backing the Arizona Abortion Access Act, in a final push for public support before the initiative’s signature gathering ends this month. 

The deadline for the campaign behind the ballot measure to turn in its notarized signature sheets is July 3. To merit a spot on the November ballot, the Arizona Abortion Access Act, which seeks to enshrine abortion as a right in the state constitution, must have earned the support of at least 383,923 voters. In April, the campaign announced it had gathered nearly double that number, and vowed to continue collecting signatures to build a buffer against those that will eventually be thrown out during the verification process. 

On Monday, the campaign released a letter signed by more than 550 health care providers, across a wide range of medical professions, including nurses, pediatricians, OB-GYNs, and family medicine doctors, declaring support for the ballot measure. 

“No matter how one personally feels about abortion, every person should be able to make their own decisions with their doctor and those they love and trust,” reads the letter. “The Arizona Abortion Access Act guarantees personal decisions regarding a patient’s reproductive health will be left to the patient, their family, and their doctor, not politicians.”

The initiative guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion up to the point of fetal viability, which is generally regarded to be around 24 weeks of gestation. An exception allows abortions beyond that point if a health care provider determines it is necessary to preserve a patient’s life, physical or mental health. It also forbids the state from adopting or enforcing any policy that restricts access to abortion unless its intent is to safeguard the patient’s life or health — potentially upending decades of anti-abortion laws passed to encumber and deter women from seeking abortions. 

Dr. Andrew Carroll, a family doctor who has provided care to Valley residents for more than 20 years, said that he added his name to the list of medical professionals advocating for the initiative because enacting barriers to abortion can have dangerous consequences. 

During a Monday morning news conference hosted by the Arizona for Abortion Access campaign, Carroll shared how he nearly lost his wife after she suffered from severe hemorrhaging due to a miscarriage. She lost consciousness from blood loss, but was stabilized after doctors performed a dilation and curettage — a procedure in which tissue is removed from the uterus to reduce heavy bleeding. The procedure is also used in some abortions, and reproductive rights advocates have warned that abortion bans risk endangering women who experience miscarriages and require immediate help. In some states with restrictive laws on the books, doctors have proven unwilling to provide care for miscarriage complications until they can be certain the fetus has died, for fear of criminalization, forcing women to face potentially life-threatening outcomes.

“Any kind of delay in being able to receive this care would have deprived me of the woman I adore, and our son of his loving mother,” Carroll said. 

He added that the abortion initiative would prevent further legal whiplash for both doctors and Arizonans amid constant attacks from both the state and federal levels. 

“With Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case, and with abortion ban after abortion ban around this country, it’s abundantly clear that attacks on abortion care and reproductive freedom won’t stop,” Carroll said. “So it’s on us to stop this dangerous interference. It’s on us to vote ‘Yes’ on the Arizona Abortion Access Act to ensure that medical decisions are made by patients, their loved ones, and their trusted health care providers.” 

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion in 2022, the Grand Canyon State was thrown into uncertainty as Republican state officials and the courts vied over whether to enforce a 15-week gestational ban or a near-total prohibition from 1864 that carried with it prison time for doctors. In April, the Arizona Supreme Court sided with the Civil War-era law, prompting weeks of turmoil at the GOP-controlled legislature until Democrats were able to peel away enough support to repeal the law. And at the federal level, the high court is set to issue opinions in two cases that could erect new roadblocks to abortion access across the country, by rolling back the certification of the most-widely used abortion pill and eliminating federal protections for emergency room abortions. 

Robin Williams volunteers collecting signatures and talking to Arizonans to put the abortion rights initiative on the ballot. The East Valley resident had an abortion of her own as a high school student, and lived through a time before the protections of Roe existed. She knew about some women, including friends and family members, who, with no other recourse, underwent dangerous back alley abortions that ended in hemorrhaging, ingested bleach or used hangers or knitting needles to end unwanted pregnancies. Williams said she’s determined to continue advocating for abortion access and said she’s frustrated that the state is moving backwards. 

“I’m so mad that in 2024 once more we are having to fight for women’s basic right to health care,” she said.  

Hurdles ahead: voters on the fence, pro-life advocates & GOP lawmakers

While backers of the abortion rights initiative are confident it has gathered more than enough signatures to go before voters in November, earning Arizonans’ support at the ballot box might prove more difficult. Reproductive rights advocates are hoping the Arizona initiative will echo the success of other efforts that won overwhelming support from voters in other states, including Republican strongholds like Kansas and Kentucky

But a new poll shows that voters in the Grand Canyon State are evenly split on enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution. The Noble Predictive Insights poll, conducted in May, found that 41% of voters support the idea of a constitutional amendment to protect abortion until fetal viability and 41% oppose the idea. As much as 18% of voters were undecided on the issue, signaling a group with the power to sway the result in either direction. Other public opinion polls, however, found overwhelming support for the ballot measure: A CBS News and YouGov poll conducted in the same month estimated that as much as 65% of respondents, across party lines, would vote for the Arizona Abortion Access Act. 

Along with courting voter approval, the campaign spearheading the abortion rights ballot measure faces opposition from GOP lawmakers and pro-life organizations. The It Goes Too Far campaign, a coalition of pro-life groups including the Center for Arizona Policy, which is behind many of the state’s restrictive abortion laws, was formed in January to turn voters away from the abortion initiative, and has sought to paint it as too extreme. And in April, shortly after Democrats first pushed to repeal the 1864 abortion ban, a Republican plan to foil the abortion initiative with competing ballot measures was leaked

So far, GOP lawmakers haven’t followed through on the plan, but they have until July 1 to send a referral to the November ballot. 

Spokeswoman Dawn Penich said the Arizona Abortion Access campaign is ready to launch a voter education effort to clear up any “lies” being advanced by opponents or clarify which ballot measure actually preserves access to the procedure. Voters, she added, aren’t fooled by efforts to confuse them. 

“We have a lot of confidence that Arizonans can see the truth of what this amendment will do for them, which is restore the access that we had prior to Roe v. Wade being dismantled,” she said. 

One key criticism from the It Goes Too Far campaign is that the initiative makes reference to a “health care provider” in its provision detailing who can decide whether an abortion is merited. Critics say that opens the door to any health care professional performing an abortion, including acupuncturists and massage therapists. But Dr. Candace Lew, a practicing OB-GYN for 40 years and the chair of the Arizona for Abortion Access Campaign, denounced that as misinformation. The ballot measure doesn’t seek to change who can perform an abortion, she said, and simply because it doesn’t clarify how it affects every other law that came before it doesn’t mean it automatically nullifies them. 

“It doesn’t change the status quo as far as who is able to perform an abortion,” Lew said, during Monday’s news conference. “It doesn’t say anything about that, and by not saying anything it means that it doesn’t change those things. We can’t be specific about everything that doesn’t change.” 

The same provision in the ballot measure that states no law or policy which denies or restricts a person’s right to an abortion can be enforced or created also adds an exception for laws and policies that are “justified by a compelling state interest.” A compelling state interest is defined as a policy or regulation that doesn’t infringe on a person’s “autonomous decision making,” and also seeks to improve or maintain the patient’s health, in line with accepted clinical standards and evidence-based medicine. 

Another point of contention for the It Goes Too Far Campaign is the exception in the amendment for abortions performed beyond 24 weeks, if a health care provider deems it’s necessary to preserve the patient’s life, physical or mental health. The mental health part of the exception has been denounced by critics as a catch-all for any woman who is unwilling to go through a pregnancy, no matter its viability. Penich said that voters are cognizant that not every pregnancy is the same and not every woman reacts to unexpected pregnancies the same, and options are needed. 

“Abortions later in pregnancy are health care, and this restores the right to access that if you need it and if you don’t, then you live your life the way you do any other time,” she said. 

Some Republicans are counting on the current 15-week gestational ban to dampen support for the Arizona Abortion Access Act. The state supreme court’s ruling reinstating a near-total ban from 1864 prompted a handful of Republican lawmakers, fearful that voters living under virtually no access to abortions would support the abortion initiative, to join Democrats in repealing the law. But Penich said the hope that voters will be content with the 15-week law and convinced to stay home on Election Day is unfounded. 

“Voters are smart, they are paying attention and one thing they definitely don’t like is this flip flopping and constant changing of the status (of abortion access),” she said. “And they understand that a constitutional amendment would be the thing that puts that to a stop.”