A rally for abortion rights May 3, 2022, at the Arkansas Capitol. Brian Chilson

A rollback of Arkansas’s draconian near-total ban on abortion care will be on the 2024 ballot if a group of medical privacy and reproductive rights advocates have their way.

A proposed new constitutional amendment would allow abortions up to 18 weeks after conception, and in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly, or to protect the health of the mother.

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A group called Arkansans for Limited Government filed their ballot title with Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin on Nov. 9. The group has a web page with an FAQ, statistics and an option for supporters to donate.

“When it comes to personal health care, Arkansans know what’s best for their families, and the state shouldn’t pretend to play doctor or know better,” said Hershey Garner, a Fayetteville oncologist and chair of Arkansans for Limited Government. “These matters are deeply personal and should be between an individual and their medical provider.”

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(Editor’s note: Arkansans for Limited Government includes For AR People, a content partner of the Arkansas Times.)

Submitting a ballot title for the AG’s approval is the first step in the tricky, expensive and labor-intensive process required to get citizen-initiated ballot issues before voters.

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The proposed amendment to the Arkansas constitution would supersede a ban now in place that makes Arkansas among the strictest and cruelest in the nation when it comes to access to reproductive health care.

A trigger law passed by Arkansas’s exuberantly archconservative Legislature went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24, 2022, overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision that protected access to abortion care nationwide for nearly half a century. The Arkansas ban prevents any and all abortions except to save the life of the mother. No exceptions are allowed for victims of rape or incest, to protect a mother’s health, or cases in which the fetus is certain to die.

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The proposed amendment would change that. Called the Arkansas Reproductive Healthcare Amendment, the proposed ballot title and summary are short and to the point. You can read the entire two pages here, but the crucial language is this:

The government of the State of Arkansas, its officers, or its political subdivisions shall not prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict access to abortion within 18 weeks of conception, or in cases of rape, incest, in the event of a fatal fetal anomaly, or when abortion is needed to protect the pregnant female’s life or health.

Griffin’s approval (or most likely, his denial) of the ballot title is expected sometime Monday. Arkansas attorneys general have a history of being persnickety — some might even say downright obstructionist — about approving these submissions.

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Considering Griffin’s stance on abortion rights, he’s unlikely to be generous here. Griffin has said he supports abortion access for victims of rape and incest, which is not currently allowed under Arkansas’s punishing wholesale ban. But this summer, Griffin joined 18 other state attorneys general to oppose a federal rule change that would keep states from being able to get hold of the medical records of their citizens who travel out of state for abortion care.

While Griffin hasn’t been in the attorney general position long, he already has a history of slow-rolling ballot title approvals. A recent attempt to repeal the Arkansas LEARNS school privatization and voucher law took three tries to win ballot title approval from Griffin in June. Organizers ultimately fell short of the signature requirements to get their measure to the ballot.

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If and when Griffin approves the Arkansas Reproductive Healthcare Amendment ballot title and summary, the group will need to collect 90,704 signatures from registered voters across 50 of Arkansas’s 75 counties to qualify for the ballot. Organizers with Arkansans for Limited Government aim to raise $2 million in donations to cover the cost of signature collection.

Arkansas’s Republican-controlled Legislature has been hostile to citizen-led ballot initiatives in recent years and has enacted laws making it nearly impossible for mere mortals to get their amendments before voters. Signature collection is a notoriously unwieldy and expensive process, with intensive paperwork requirements and other hoops to jump through.

But if Arkansans for Limited Government can get all the busy work done, they may have a shot of winning with even Arkansas’s blood-red electorate. Even in solidly Republican Arkansas, voters and some political officials across the political spectrum have advocated for loosening the abortion ban. And this effort comes on the heels of a big win in Ohio, where earlier this month 57% of voters passed a constitutional amendment protecting the right to an abortion.

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