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The anti-abortion movement is making a major effort to thwart citizen initiatives in the field of reproductive rights

CHICAGO (AP) — Anti-abortion groups and their Republican allies in state governments are reeling from a series of defeats and using a range of strategies to counter proposed ballot initiatives aimed at protecting reproductive rights or preventing voters from voting in the fall have a say in elections.

Tactics include efforts to have signatures removed from initiative petitions, legislative pushes for competing ballot measures that could confuse voters, and months of delays caused by lawsuits over ballot initiative language. Abortion rights advocates say many of the strategies build on those tested last year in Ohio, where voters ultimately passed a constitutional amendment affirming reproductive rights.

The strategies are being used in some form in at least seven states where initiatives aimed at codifying abortion and reproductive rights are being proposed for the November ballot. The fights over planned ballot initiatives across the state are the latest sign of the deep divisions created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision two years ago to end the constitutional right to abortion.

Last week, the court ruled in another major abortion case, unanimously upholding access to a drug used in most abortions in the U.S., although the battle over mifepristone remains active in many states.

The stakes for the proposed ballot initiatives are high for both parties.

Where Republicans control the legislature and enact strict abortion restrictions, a state initiative is often the only way to protect access to abortion and other reproductive rights. In all seven states where the issue has been on the ballot since 2022, voters have either enshrined abortion rights or rejected efforts to restrict them.

In South Dakota, lawmakers passed a law allowing residents to rescind their signatures on citizen-led petitions. This launched an all-out effort by anti-abortion groups to invalidate a proposed abortion rights ballot measure by encouraging endorsers to withdraw their signatures.

South Dakota’s secretary of state in May labeled hundreds of calls from an anti-abortion group accused of impersonating government officials as “scams.”

“The calls appear to put pressure on voters to request that their names be removed from abortion rights petitions,” the agency said in a statement.

Adam Weiland, co-founder of Dakotans for Health, the organization behind the proposed measure, said this is part of “an orchestrated, organized effort between states.”

“People want to vote on this issue, and they don’t want that to happen,” he said of anti-abortion groups. “They are doing everything they can to avoid a vote on this issue.”

A “Decline to Sign” campaign in Arkansas escalated this month after a conservative advocacy group published the names of paid candidates for an abortion rights ballot measure. Arkansans for Limited Government, the group behind the ballot initiative, denounced the measure as an intimidation tactic.

In Missouri, Republicans and anti-abortion groups have opposed efforts to restore abortion rights through a constitutional amendment at every step in the process.

Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey held back the campaign for abortion rights for months last year. Then the secretary of state, Republican Jay Ashcroft, tried to describe the proposal to voters as “dangerous and unregulated live birth abortions.” Last year, a state appeals court ruled that Ashcroft’s wording was politically partisan and threw it out.

But Ashcroft’s actions and legal battle cost the abortion rights campaign several months, preventing its supporters from collecting the thousands of voter signatures needed to get the amendment on the ballot.

Once the legal battle was settled, abortion opponents launched a “decline to sign” campaign, aimed at thwarting signature-gathering efforts by abortion rights campaigns. At one point, voters received text messages falsely accusing petitioners of trying to steal people’s personal information.

Republican lawmakers tried to advance a new ballot measure to raise the threshold for amending the Missouri Constitution, partly in hopes of making it harder to pass the abortion rights bill.

Both anti-abortion efforts failed, and the abortion rights campaign in May attracted more than double the required number of signatures. Now it’s up to Ashcroft’s office to verify the signatures and ensure they qualify for the ballot.

Meanwhile, opposition groups in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Nebraska have attempted to create their own ballot measures to codify existing abortion restrictions, although these efforts failed to gather enough signatures in Florida and Colorado.

Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland and an adviser to the Issue 1 campaign that codified abortion rights in Ohio, said she had warned about the possibility of competing ballot measures that could confuse voters.

While efforts to keep abortion off the ballot follow a similar blueprint to what she saw in Ohio last year, Hill said she is closely watching new efforts across the country.

“The anti-abortion side is still trying to figure out what the formula is to defeat these ballot measures,” Hill said.

A strategy document leaked last month shows that Arizona Republicans are considering several competing measures to enshrine abortion restrictions in the state constitution. Possible petition names include the “Protecting Pregnant Women and Safe Abortions Act,” the “Arizona Abortion and Reproductive Care Act,” or the “Arizona Abortion Protection Act.”

The document explicitly describes how the alternative measures could undermine a proposal from reproductive rights groups that want to codify abortion rights based on viability, usually around 23 weeks to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

“This leaked document revealed a scheme to confuse voters by using one or more competing ballots with similar titles,” said Cheryl Bruce, campaign manager for Arizona for Abortion Access.

In Nebraska, anti-abortion groups are banding together to oppose a planned ballot initiative to protect reproductive rights.

Allie Berry, campaign director for the Nebraska Protect Our Rights campaign, which aims to protect reproductive rights, said the competing measures are intended to mislead and confuse voters. She said the campaign is working to educate voters about the differences between each of the initiatives.

“If you have to resort to deception and confusion, it shows that they realize that most Nebraskans want to protect abortion rights,” she said.

One counter-initiative launched by anti-abortion activists in May aims to ban abortion at all stages of pregnancy. The petition, called ‘Now Choose Life’, would grant embryos ‘personality’.

Another launched in March wouldn’t go that far, but instead seeks to codify the state constitution’s existing 12-week abortion ban, while giving lawmakers the option to pass further restrictions in the future.

The petition, called Protect Women and Children, was supported by the national anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and others in the state.

Sandy Danek, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, called the petition a “reasonable alternative measure.” She said, “As time goes on and we continue to educate,” the organization will strive to further restrict abortion.

“I see this as a step-by-step process that we have been working on for 50 years,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.

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