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Court rulings on abortion could rattle Florida's November elections

FILE - An anti-abortion activist shouts at patients arriving at a health center in Clearwater, Florida, Feb. 11, 2023. The Florida Supreme Court this week issued two rulings that virtually guarantee that the issue of abortion will be top of mind for many voters in November.
FILE - An anti-abortion activist shouts at patients arriving at a health center in Clearwater, Florida, Feb. 11, 2023. The Florida Supreme Court this week issued two rulings that virtually guarantee that the issue of abortion will be top of mind for many voters in November.

The Florida Supreme Court this week issued two rulings that virtually guarantee that the issue of abortion will be top of mind for many voters in November, potentially driving higher turnout among reproductive rights supporters in the key battleground state.

In an opinion issued on Monday, the court ruled that Florida’s constitution does not include the right of women in the state to receive an abortion. The ruling cleared the way for the state to enforce a ban on abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, which the legislature passed and Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law last year.

At the same time, the court found that a proposed amendment to the constitution that would create a right to abortion must be allowed to go before voters in November, raising the possibility that the six-week ban — one of the strictest in the country — might be in effect for only a few months.

Complex history

The case regarding the constitutionality of abortion restrictions in Florida has a complex history. The suit was brought as a challenge to an earlier abortion ban that blocked access to the procedure after 15 weeks, which DeSantis signed into law in 2022. The plaintiffs had argued that a Privacy Clause added to the state constitution in 1980 protected access to abortion, a claim the court found unpersuasive.

The more recent 6-week ban was on hold pending the court's decision in this case, which cleared the way for the stricter ban to go into effect 30 days after it was issued. Because the 6-week mark is when fetal heart tissue begins to develop, such bans are frequently referred to as "heartbeat" bills.

Amendment language

The second decision concerned an effort to add the following language to the state's constitution: "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. This amendment does not change the Legislature's constitutional authority to require notification to a parent or guardian before a minor has an abortion."

Known as Amendment 4, the change would make it unconstitutional for the state to ban abortions before viability — the point at which a baby can survive outside the womb — which is generally believed to be at 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Critics of the language had argued that the proposed amendment was not clear in its meaning and that it should not be put to a vote, claims the court dismissed.

Mixed reactions

The twin rulings gave supporters of abortion rights and abortion opponents something to celebrate on Monday.

Floridians Protecting Freedom, an umbrella group made up of various organizations supporting abortion rights, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, pledged to muster support for the change through its "Yes on 4" campaign.

"Today, the Court affirmed what we've known all along: that Amendment 4 clearly satisfies the requirements for placement on the ballot," Lauren Brenzel, the campaign director of Yes on 4 said in a statement. "We are thrilled Floridians will have the opportunity to reclaim their bodily autonomy and freedom from government interference by voting for Amendment 4 this November."

For abortion opponents, Monday's decision on the current constitutionality of an abortion ban was seen as confirmation of their claims. The organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America issued a statement calling the decision a "victory for unborn children who have a heartbeat and can feel pain."

However, it called on abortion opponents and DeSantis to organize to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment, depicting it as the brainchild of large pro-choice organizations.

"As Florida faces what may be its biggest ballot fight yet, Gov. Ron DeSantis must be at the forefront of protecting Florida from Big Abortion's attempt to eliminate the rights of unborn children, parents, women, and girls," the group said in a statement.

Track record of turnout

Recent history suggests that the opponents of the amendment may have a serious fight on their hands in November. Since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade, the decades-old ruling that had prevented states from completely banning abortions, the issue has been put before voters in several states.

In traditionally liberal-leaning states, voters were quick to enshrine the right to an abortion in state constitutions. However, in a number of otherwise conservative-leaning states, such as Ohio and Kentucky, voters flocked to the polls to show their support for retaining the state-level right to an abortion.

Ohio voters in November approved a constitutional right to abortion, while a year earlier, Kentucky voters blocked an effort to strip similar rights from their state's constitution.

Impact on election

In recent decades, Florida has been considered a "swing" state in U.S. elections. But in the past two election cycles, the state has trended Republican, voting for Donald Trump twice and supporting Republicans in most statewide offices.

President Joe Biden, who will be facing Trump in November's election, was quick to issue a statement reiterating his support for abortion rights in the state, saying that he and Vice President Kamala Harris "remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting reproductive freedom in Florida and across the nation."

Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida who studies the state's politics, told VOA that the presence of the abortion amendment on the ballot is likely to help Biden in the state.

"It's going to help mobilize liberal progressive, Democratic-leaning voters in Florida," Jewett said. "And it will also, maybe, mobilize some independents … who might otherwise not turn out for an election."

Jewett said the overall effect might not be enough to flip the state's presidential vote into the Democratic column but could have a significant impact on other races, including a closely contested race for one of the state's two seats in the U.S. Senate.

"I wouldn't rule out the fact that Biden could have an upset — anything's possible," Jewett said. "But I think it's more likely that it will just allow Democrats to be competitive up and down the ticket, and that Biden, if he competes, at least won't get blown out."