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The fight over abortion is heating up in Arizona — and could be on the ballot in 2024

PHOENIX – As opponents of abortion rights marched through the streets of Arizona’s capital Friday, organizers and activists on both sides of the issue have their eyes on Election Day.

Abortion rights groups are seeking to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would create a “fundamental right” to receive abortion care until fetal viability, or around the 24th week of pregnancy, with exceptions after that if a healthcare professional health care decides it is necessary to “protect the life or physical or mental health of the pregnant individual.”

The measure’s placement could help boost Democratic turnout in the state amid both a battleground presidential campaign and a key Senate race, a potential boon for President Joe Biden, who is trailing former President Donald Trump left in the recent polls in Arizona.

In the nearly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down national abortion protections, abortion rights advocates have won every race to date in which the issue appeared directly on the ballot. In an effort to further galvanize support for reproductive rights, such groups in as many as 13 states are working to enshrine abortion rights in state constitutions this fall.

But as those efforts have expanded, so has the energy and organization behind efforts to combat them. And the proposal faces significant resistance from conservatives in Arizona.

These passions were on display Friday at the Arizona March For Life, where thousands of people gathered to celebrate their anti-abortion ideals. A shofar was blown, drums were beaten and a Catholic priest with a megaphone sang “ole, ole, ole, ole, pro-life, pro-life.” Activists and organizers were joined by hundreds of children from across Arizona.

Alex Tabet / NBC News

Alex Tabet / NBC News

Sister Maria Rose Metzger, a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist and a high school teacher, brought many of her students to the March For Life.

“The young people get it,” she said. “They understand that life is important. They understand that they wouldn’t be here [if] their mothers did not say yes to the gift of life.”

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Metzger says faith guides her life, but she said science informs her opposition to abortion rights. “Life begins at conception – that’s actually a science. That is not a religion or a matter of faith,” she said.

religion religious dominican sister portrait (Alexander Tabet / NBC News)religion religious dominican sister portrait (Alexander Tabet / NBC News)

religion religious dominican sister portrait (Alexander Tabet / NBC News)

Under current Arizona law, abortion is legal until the 15th week of pregnancy, with an exception after that to save the mother’s life, but no exceptions for rape or incest.

The ballot measure proposed by reproductive rights groups would extend the deadline for abortion restrictions to take effect and expand the room for exceptions.

To get it posted, the group leading the initiative — Arizona for Abortion Access — must collect nearly 384,000 valid signatures by July 3. Leaders know the path forward will be difficult.

“We aim to collect more than double the number of signatures we need, which puts us between 700,000 and 800,000 signatures,” said Chris Love, an Arizona spokesperson for Abortion Access. “The signatures are very easy to challenge here in the state of Arizona.”

Chris Love in front of a laptop, (Alex Tabet/NBC News)Chris Love in front of a laptop, (Alex Tabet/NBC News)

Chris Love in front of a laptop, (Alex Tabet/NBC News)

In January, the group said it had collected 250,000 signatures.

One of the many groups opposing Love’s coalition efforts is Arizona Right To Life. The organization says they have a team of retainer attorneys waiting to scrutinize every signature submitted by the team behind the July ballot measure. Until then, the group says its plan is to educate Arizonans about the Arizona Abortion Access Act — the formal name of the ballot initiative — in an effort to dissuade them from signing the petitions in the first place.

Lori Zee Gray smiles (Alex Tabet/NBC News)Lori Zee Gray smiles (Alex Tabet/NBC News)

Lori Zee Gray smiles (Alex Tabet/NBC News)

“We’re actually giving them the information that’s in the Arizona Abortion Access Act,” said Lori Zee Gray, a board member at Arizona Right To Life, which is responsible for coordinating volunteers for the “Decline To Sign” initiative. The main talking point, she said, is that “signing this petition supports abortion up to birth.”

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Love and other proponents of the measure note that this is explicitly not stated in the measure, which can last up to 24 weeks, with exceptions when “in the good faith of a treating healthcare provider it is necessary to protect the life or physical or mental health of the pregnant individual.”

Zee Gray’s rhetorical framework mirrors that of prominent Republicans, including Trump, who have long accused Democrats of supporting late-term abortions and abortions on demand. It’s a message they hope will counter the efforts of voter turnouts and Democratic candidates who support abortion rights this fall.

Zee Gray’s group has also focused heavily on the proposal’s exception after fetal viability to protect the “mental health” of a pregnant woman, arguing that it could be subject to a broad interpretation that could be applied to authorize abortion care.

“It’s loose. It is broad,” said Terry LaFrance, a representative of the “It Goes Too Far Campaign,” which also wants to stop the Arizona Abortion Access Act.

Arizona for Abortion Access has approximately 3,000 volunteers statewide. Arizona Right To Life is training volunteers for their “Decline To Sign” initiative, which aims to deter voters from signing for the ballot initiative. Zee Gray says they have over 950 volunteers statewide. And LaFrance’s “It Goes Too Far” notes that more than 500 volunteers are involved statewide.

If Arizona for Abortion Access is successful on the ballot, Zee Gray says, it won’t stop Arizona Right To Life from doing everything they can to stop this.

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“If it is indeed the case that signatures are accepted and it ends up on the ballot, we will shift into a voter education mode where we reach out to voters of faith, pro-life voters, and let them know that they need to continue to share the information about the truth about the act,” she said.

Alex Tabet / NBC NewsAlex Tabet / NBC News

Alex Tabet / NBC News

Implications for the presidential race

The battle over the measure has major political consequences.

“The abortion initiative could be the thing that absolutely drives Joe Biden to a victory in Arizona, it’s probably his only hope,” said Barrett Marson, a GOP political consultant in Arizona. He predicted the measure could be Biden’s “savior.”

The same dynamic could also play out in the battle for the Senate, with control of the Senate potentially at stake.

Incumbent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent, has not said whether she will run again. The Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, an abortion rights supporter, and Republican Kari Lake, an abortion opponent who has emphasized differing positions during her efforts to win public office, have entered the race.

The proposal “can probably only help Ruben Gallego and only hurt Kari Lake,” Marson said.

Also looming over the abortion battle is an Arizona Supreme Court decision on an 1864 abortion ban that remains on the books, making it a crime punishable by two to five years in prison for anyone who is a woman or helps a woman obtain abortion care. Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes is not enforcing the law, but future officials could if it remains on the books. The decision can be made at any moment.

Love, of Arizona for Abortion Access, said the ruling won’t change her group’s strategy heading into November. But a decision to enforce that law could change the mindset of voters in November, she added.

“I think what will change is honestly the voters, because I think that will be something that will motivate them to come out and protect abortion in Arizona,” Love said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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