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Inside the long-odds push to undo an abortion ban in ruby red Arkansas

BRYANT, Ark. — Tony Chism pulled up to the library in a red pickup truck with a “Don’t Tread on Me” plate on the front and a “Biden Sucks” sticker on the back. He settled into a lawn chair and held up a sign showing solidarity with abortion rights activists gathered nearby: “LET PEOPLE VOTE.”

The 60-year-old conservative was there with his daughter Lela Chism — a 37-year-old liberal — to advance a shared cause: gathering enough signatures to put abortion and five other issues on the ballot this fall, allowing Arkansans the chance to override their state’s total ban on the procedure.

“I think that should be a matter between the mother and her doctor,” said Tony, a two-time Trump voter.

Voters have backed abortion rights in every statewide referendum on the issue since Roe v. Wade fell 22 months ago — in red and blue states alike. Now a push for one in Arkansas could test the limits of the abortion rights movement’s success. If there’s anywhere abortion opponents can beat back its momentum, it’s here — a deeply Christian, conservative place sometimes ranked as the “most pro-life state in America.”

Supporters of a direct vote are betting that abortion rights has become a winning issue here in the post-Roe era, with strict bans galvanizing liberal voters and also giving some conservatives pause. Arkansas allows abortion only to save the life of the woman, exemplifying the kind of restrictions that have Republican politicians across the country squirming. It is also a rural state with high poverty rates, uneven access to medical services and the highest maternal death rate in the United States — making in-state options for abortion especially important, supporters say.

But the ballot proposal to legalize abortion through 18 weeks after fertilization — and afterward in limited cases — is facing stiff headwinds, with many voters guided by their faith and a conviction that life begins at conception. The main groups funding abortion ballot measures around the country have so far passed over Arkansas, a testament to the uncertainty of success as well as divisions over strategy. Efforts to put abortion on the ballot in 2024 battlegrounds including Arizona, Nevada and Florida have drawn far more attention.

Almost a dozen groups have filed with the state to oppose the ballot measure and, ideally, prevent it from meeting the July 5 deadline for roughly 90,000 signatures, according to officials. Arkansas Right to Life has launched a “Decline to Sign” campaign; its website offers slides and scripts for people to take to their churches. Another group opposed is headed by an adviser to Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a staunch social conservative.

“Any life is important,” Jenna Nissen, a voter in her mid-30s, said as she left church in Benton, not far from Little Rock. “I don’t think that ending life at any point is a measure that I would get behind.”

Activists in Arkansas are hoping that more support and money will come later, if their shoestring effort can gather enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot. They declined to say how many they have gathered so far, a potential sign of the struggles they face.

“I’m afraid that some people think that we’re a lost cause,” said Veronica McClane, a volunteer leading signature-gathering efforts in Central Arkansas. “We are fighting every single day … and we need help.”

The opposition on the ground in Arkansas is just as impassioned, and some weekends, the two sides come face to face. Dueling presences at a recent farmers market grew heated; the local police department sent an extra patrol. Video posted on social media shows an antiabortion demonstrator growing incensed at being filmed, at one point calling someone a “stupid, ignorant Commie-crat that wants more dead babies.”

Things were quiet one Saturday morning this month in Bryant as the ballot measure volunteers set up outside the library, a secluded, woodsy spot in deep-red Saline County. But the farmers market clash — which also unfolded in Saline — had people on edge. The group tensed up when they thought they saw people arrive in antiabortion T-shirts, but decided it was a false alarm.

Then Lela Chism saw a man in a “Choose Life” shirt approach with a young boy.

“The people from Saturday, those are them,” she said.

It was a local pastor, Zeke Brinsfield, with his 8-year-old son Daniel in tow.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” Brinsfield asked.

Abortion has traditionally been an uncomfortable subject for many Democrats in Arkansas, a socially conservative state with one of the highest concentrations of evangelical Christians in the country.

Former president Bill Clinton once coined the saying that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” As the Democratic governor of this state, he opposed taxpayer funding of the procedure but didn’t support ballot measures to formally bar such spending. Mark Pryor, the state’s last Democratic senator, was known to dodge questions about abortion and faced pressure to support a national limit before he lost his seat in 2014.

But Roe’s end in 2022 scrambled the politics of abortion nationwide, dividing Republicans once unified under the “pro-life” banner and putting Democrats on offense. Voters rejected antiabortion ballot measures in states as conservative as Kansas and Kentucky and repudiated a six-week ban in red-leaning Ohio, opting by a 13-point margin to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

The results have underscored many voters’ resistance to taking away a decades-long right, even if they personally would not pursue an abortion or support it for a loved one. Some Democrats who once avoided abortion and other social issues in red and rural communities now say the issue is one of their most powerful arguments to voters.

Tony Chism, the conservative, is not sure how he’ll vote this year for president and has reservations about both main candidates. On abortion, however, his views are straightforward.

“I don’t know why government should be in it,” he said after emphasizing that he doesn’t “believe in big government.”

Abortion rights advocates in Arkansas have leaned into that traditionally conservative rallying cry, organizing under the banner Arkansans for Limited Government. Their proposed ballot measure would allow the majority of abortions, which are concentrated in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Organizers say the lower threshold of 18 weeks, about a month earlier than the viability standard established under Roe, was necessary to improve their chances in November. But it has alienated the national abortion rights groups that have put millions into ballot initiatives elsewhere.

“The policy itself, we believe, is not strong enough and expansive enough to deliver the access it should,” said Sarah Standiford, national campaigns director for Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Arkansas is not among the nine states where the organization is supporting ballot measure efforts or monitoring them for potential involvement.

Arkansans for Limited Government has pressed forward with a tiny budget and about 500 volunteers. One of them has been messaging TikTok influencers in the hope of garnering more attention.

“We understand that no one is coming to save us,” said Genny Diaz, a spokeswoman for the ballot initiative.

Some individual donors in Arkansas have helped the effort crack six figures in fundraising, Diaz said, and organizers are looking at hiring paid canvassers to pick up the pace on signatures. But it’s not clear that the group can make its July deadline — let alone run a statewide ad campaign in the face of fierce resistance.

Antiabortion activists have tried to draw attention to the ballot proposal’s allowance for some abortions after 18 weeks — in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly or threat of physical harm to the woman. They are betting that many Arkansans will balk at abortion later in the fetus’s development, no matter the reason, unless the woman’s life is at risk.

Asked what she makes of other conservative states voting for abortion rights, Rose Mimms, the executive director of Arkansas Right to Life, demurred.

“We know the people of our state,” Mimms said. “I can’t speak to what’s happened in other states. … I just know that in Arkansas, we love life.”

Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, won reelection last year in his deep-red state after criticizing its total abortion ban and running a campaign ad with an emotional appeal from a victim of rape. Fearing public backlash, some Republicans including former president Donald Trump have distanced themselves from the strictest bans and made a point to endorse exceptions for sexual assault and incest.

But legislators in Arkansas have declined to add exceptions or otherwise soften their ban, leaving conservative voters split.

One Trump supporter hesitated at the idea of legalizing abortion through 18 weeks, but said she would probably back the ballot measure if that was the only way to change the law. Sonya, speaking on the condition that only her first name be used to protect her privacy, said she had had an abortion many years ago as a struggling single mother and would want her daughters to have the same option.

“I know for a fact, for me, it was the best decision,” said Sonya, 59, who added that she is a devout Christian and opposes abortion in many cases.

Outside the library in Bryant, the ballot measure volunteers gave curt answers to the critics peppering them with questions. There was Brinsfield, the pastor, and his son; Canaa Lee, a 44-year-old teacher who had protested at abortion clinics before they were forced to shut down; and a man who identified himself only as Justin and wore a shirt citing the Bible’s Gospel of John.

“This is not a medical procedure,” Lee said as she filmed the scene with her cellphone.

“It’s Satan wanting to separate a child from the womb,” Brinsfield told the camera. In an interview later, he voiced a view out of step with many antiabortion activists, saying he opposes abortion even to preserve the life of the woman, because God “gives and takes away in all circumstances.”

Signature gatherers planted themselves in front of the abortion opponents, unfurling umbrellas. Someone started to play music from a cellphone as Justin paced around and asked repeatedly, “When is a baby a baby?” Eventually he walked over to Tony Chism, who joined the conversation from his lawn chair.

“Are you going to let the government tell you what your right is?” Chism asked Justin.

There was a back-and-forth, then Justin asked: “Who gave the government rights?”

“The people,” Chism said. When he asked Justin if he had “the right to vote,” Justin replied: “Do you have the right to take life?”

The signature-gathering kept going, despite the commotion. Two hours at the library yielded 35 more names, and the tension eased a bit as the clash of views went on without escalating.

The scene was not nearly as heated as the previous weekend’s drama at the Benton farmers market — a higher-traffic area about a block from the county GOP headquarters. But the ballot measure campaign would be back at the farmers market in a week.

Lela Chism saw an upside in the confrontations and opposition. “They’ve made it where now everyone’s sharing it, and they want to come out,” she said. “I told them, ‘You’re getting me signatures.’”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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