Abortion Advocates Should Turn to Direct Democracy

Citizen-driven ballot initiatives are a powerful tool in the fight against abortion bans like the one threatening Arizona. State governments can’t be trusted to execute the popular will. We’ll have to do it ourselves.

Members of Arizona for Abortion Access, advocating for a ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the Arizona State Constitution, hold a press conference and protest condemning Arizona House Republicans and the 1864 abortion ban during a recess from a legislative session at the Arizona House of Representatives on April 17, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Rebecca Noble / Getty Images)

I was furious when Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022. Underneath that anger was fear. I was fearful of how my own life would change if I were to get pregnant, yes, but I was also scared for others. What about survivors of sexual violence? Or pregnant teens who aren’t able to take care of a child? Or people whose plans would be unraveled by having a child they weren’t emotionally, financially, or physically capable of caring for? What implications did the decision have for the quality of life of children born from unwanted pregnancies?

Ultimately, with the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court decided it was not its responsibility to address these concerns — that each state would decide to govern its people as it saw fit. For my friends and me, all young adults, this led to great confusion. For example, we knew that elective abortion procedures were legal in California and illegal in Texas, and that Arizona banned abortions after fifteen weeks. But we knew little details beyond those broad strokes, and it was hard to keep them all straight.

It wasn’t until April 9, 2024, that I fully understood the gravity of the situation in Arizona, where I live. That’s when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Planned Parenthood et al. v. Kristin Mayes/Hazelrigg. In this decision, Justices John Lopez, Clint Bolick, James Beene, and Kathryn King all voted to turn back the clock on Arizona’s abortion laws. Their decision wouldn’t just force Arizonans back into a pre-Roe health care landscape — it would force us to live within a Civil War–era healthcare landscape. The law from 1864 would ban all abortions, unless the birthing parent’s life is in jeopardy, under the threat of jail time for both recipients and providers.

When the news broke, the media primarily reported on how this decision might impact the election prospects of Democratic legislators. Meanwhile, my friends and I were left frantically seeking accurate information on when this archaic law could go into effect (at the time of publication, the scheduled date is June 8, 2024) and what we could do to stop it.

As it stands, Arizona House lawmakers have voted to repeal this near-total abortion ban, and Arizonans are waiting with bated breath to see if the Senate will do the same. If the law is repealed, the state of reproductive health in Arizona would revert back to legislation passed in 2022, which allows for abortions only up to (a meager) fifteen weeks.

Even with the potential repeal of this ban, which would be an enormous relief, the fact that a law created forty-eight years before Arizona became a state is functionally able to govern modern reproductive rights is shocking. What is to stop this whole event from playing out again and again? What can my friends and I do to permanently establish our reproductive rights, rather than being subject to a constant tug-of-war between far-right politicians and the will of the people?

What Can Be Done in Arizona?

By the time of the ruling, there were already groups in Arizona working on establishing reproductive rights through alternative means. Just a couple of months before the April 9 ruling, I joined up with a local health care justice organization, Healthcare Rising Arizona, to collect signatures for Arizona for Abortion Access Act (AAA), a state ballot campaign launched in September of 2023. If this initiative makes it onto the ballot and passes, it will enshrine Arizonans’ right to access abortions and the right for practitioners to carry them out in our state constitution, effectively ending the perpetual tug-of-war while permanently expanding the window of time to receive abortion access. The petition requires 383,923 valid signatures from Arizona voters. Sponsors of the initiative hope to gather roughly 750,000, leaving no room for contestation.

In my own experience collecting signatures for the AAA, a common thread I noticed was that while voters had heard about the recent Supreme Court decision and were mostly angry about it, they also had very little understanding of what processes could stop it from taking effect.

The AAA initiative is an example of a citizen-driven ballot initiative, a method by which ordinary citizens choose an important issue and propose a law to confront it. With enough public support, measured by signatures gathered on a verified petition, the initiative can go to a popular vote. This process, in which the people both propose and vote on the laws that govern them, is one of the only existing forms of direct democracy in the United States today.

Because citizen-driven ballot initiatives are a powerful means of enacting direct democracy, state governments across the country are cracking down on the process to prevent popular will from contradicting their own governance.

Despite the fact that a majority of American adults believe that abortion access should be legal to some degree, state governments continue to act against that sentiment. In Arizona, legislators are trying to kneecap the proposed AAA Act, should it make it onto the ballot. One of the strategies used to challenge the power of citizen-driven initiatives is to propose intentionally confusing counterinitiatives to dupe voters.

In other states, the power of the ballot initiative to reflect popular sentiment on abortions has been proven. For example, in both 2006 and 2008, South Dakotans voted against two different ballot initiatives that would have banned or severely limited abortion access. In August of 2022, voters in Kansas shot down a legislatively proposed amendment that would have enabled the government to restrict or ban access to abortion for citizens of the state. Also in 2022, Kentucky voters rejected a ballot measure that sought to deny constitutional protections for abortion care.

In each of these instances, citizens chose to preserve their reproductive health care rights rather than simply relying on the dubious idea that the government will consistently act in the people’s interests. These actions — all aimed at solidifying the power of choice and undertaken by citizens across red, blue, and purple states alike — give me hope for current campaigns like the one in Arizona.

Reproductive freedom campaigns are currently underway in various stages in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota, with initiatives that could all make it to the ballot in 2024.

Our Ballots, Our Choice

When confronted with situations like the near-total abortion ban looming over the citizens of Arizona, it is easy to feel helpless. The common proposed solution in situations like these is to go out and vote, to elect officials to reflect our individual interests. Sometimes our government surprises us and governs in keeping with majority opinion. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on that outcome. It is hard to have faith in the system when legislators and Supreme Court justices continue to create or rule on legislation that directly contradicts popular will and seeks to shut down avenues for direct democracy

By contrast, ballot initiatives offer a slightly different perspective on the recommendation to vote. When you organize for and vote on ballot initiatives, specifically citizen-driven ones, you directly contribute to decisions made by and for the people being governed.

Ballot initiatives are not a magic bullet to solve inequality and injustice in the United States, but they are one of the last powerful avenues for confronting issues like reproductive justice through direct democracy.

When faced with such a serious and recurring threat to bodily autonomy, we must throw whatever we can at the issue. If that means supporting my local health care organizations and collecting signatures for a citizen-driven initiative for reproductive rights, I will gladly grab a pen and a petition and hit the streets.