What to know about Nevada’s 2024 abortion ballot measure

RENO, NEVADA, UNITED STATES - 2022/05/03: Protesters hold signs expressing their opinion outside the federal court house during the demonstration. Protesters gathered in front of the federal courthouse in reaction to the leaked Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) document. Based on the leaked document, it will strike down Roe V. Wade on abortion rights. The initial draft majority opinion inscribes the statement of Justice Samuel Alito that says, " Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences,". (Photo by Ty O'Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By Keya Vakil

December 21, 2023

Abortion is currently legal for the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in Nevada, but advocates are pushing for a ballot measure that would give voters the chance to enshrine abortion rights in the Nevada Constitution.

It’s been 18 months since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, stripping millions of women across the country of the ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and their families.

The right-wing Court’s decision returned the issue of abortion to the states, leading to a patchwork of bans, restrictions, and protections. It also led to enormous backlash, with voters in blue, red, and purple states alike making it clear they support abortion rights.

Since the Court overturned Roe, voters in seven states have had the chance to vote directly on abortion rights via ballot measures. Voters in all seven states backed reproductive freedom, either cementing it as a right under state constitutions or defeating efforts that would have made bans possible.

Nevada could be next.

Abortion is currently legal for the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in Nevada, after voters chose to codify the right to have an abortion into state law in 1990, a move that can only be undone by another vote. But the Nevadans for Reproductive Freedom coalition is looking to add further protections for Nevada women by pushing for a ballot measure that would allow voters the chance to enshrine abortion rights in the Nevada Constitution.

RELATED: Abortion is legal in Nevada. Here’s what you need to know.

The Nevadan recently sat down with Caroline Mello Roberson, a Reno resident and the Director of State Campaigns for Reproductive Freedom for All (formerly known as NARAL). Roberson is involved in the effort to place abortion rights on Nevadans’ ballots in 2024.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

This effort to get abortion rights on the ballot launched a couple months ago. Could you talk to me a little bit about what motivated it and sort of how it came together.

The Dobbs decision undid a 50-year constitutionally protected right. It upended reproductive rights all over the country, including in places like Nevada, where we have statutory protections for abortion rights. In 1990, voters took our state statute and affirmed it. And so changes to our state abortion laws can only happen through a vote of the people, which is really good. But when the Supreme Court undid the constitutional protections granting a right to abortion, it opened the door for states to restrict abortion access.

Currently, there are dozens of states with abortion bans, including states surrounding Nevada, like Idaho, Utah, and Arizona, so more people are coming to Nevada to get reproductive healthcare services. In fact, most reporting says that somewhere around 40% of the patients coming to clinics in Nevada are coming from out of state. And so advocates including Reproductive Freedom for All, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, and the ACLU of Nevada wanted to further expand access to care and further provide permanent protections for reproductive rights in Nevada.

Starting in September, we filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office to amend the state constitution to be cleared to gather signatures. And we’re still undergoing that process. But what we know is that reproductive freedom is in a crisis like never before everywhere in this country, including in Nevada. And so we want to be proactive in expanding and protecting care knowing that it’s still under great threat.

What would this ballot measure do?

What it does is it adds to the Nevada state Constitution protections for reproductive freedom, and that includes a long list of services: birth control, abortion care, postpartum care, childbirth, tubal ligation, vasectomy. It’s a long list of reproductive freedom protections.

It also officially decriminalizes abortion in the state of Nevada. Because when you dig around in the statutes, I’m like, ‘Wow, I couldn’t believe that there were still criminal penalties on the books,’ but there are. And so it officially removes criminal penalties for abortion care in Nevada. And it also is a proactive statement that this state respects that Nevadans are the people that should decide if they want to grow their families, how they want to grow their families, and that politicians should not interfere in that decision.

Abortion is currently legal in Nevada up to 24 weeks. How would this measure affect the current state statute?

Providing a state constitutional protection is different in and of itself because we would have permanent protection. Statutory protections are difficult to undo, but can be undone. A constitutional protection is significantly harder to undo. But the other thing that the constitutional protection does is it will allow all qualified medical providers acting within their scope of practice and following standards of care to be able to provide abortion care.

That means it’ll expand the pool of folks who are able to provide abortion care, which is really important, especially in a state like Nevada where we have an M.D. shortage. We could allow nurse practitioners and advanced practice clinicians to be able to provide care. Now, of course, we’d have to go through the work of getting them licensed and certified through their various boards, but I’m pretty confident we can do that.

We’ve actually already had the support from the Nevada Board of Nursing and from the Nevada State Medical Association to do that. And so this is an opportunity to expand the provider pool in a place where, like I said, there’s more and more folks coming from out of state. And where there are people that live outside of the two main population centers in Reno and Las Vegas that need access to care, this could expand access for those folks in what we call the rurals as well.

Why does this feel particularly urgent right now?

I’ve been doing this for a long time, something like more than 15 years and mostly working in reproductive rights advocacy. And so to me, this has always been the most important cause and the most important thing that I wake up in the morning and fight for. But for a lot of Americans, this is just a reality they’re waking up to, especially for young people who always had the protections of Roe v. Wade, they did not realize how much say local politicians have in their ability to access essential healthcare services.

And so we take advantage of moments like this as political advocates, right? In saying, “This is a moment when the public is really aware.” And the other thing I will say is Nevadans have always been very supportive of reproductive freedom and that support continues to grow. When I moved here in 2016, we did polling that showed that we were somewhere around 65% support.

Now it’s something like 80% of people that support reproductive freedom. It’s a wild high number. And this has to do with our state having a really strong, some would say libertarian bent, but it’s this idea that everyone should be able to choose their own path, that we don’t want politicians or the government to make choices for people. No matter how you personally feel about these things, it’s not the choice of someone else to decide what’s right for you, that no two pregnancies are alike, no two families or people are alike. And we should allow everyone the space and the freedom to make choices that are right for them and their families.

RELATED: Judge backs right-wing group’s effort to prevent Nevadans from voting on abortion

In November, a judge in Nevada issued a ruling blocking the proposed measure, claiming it violated the state’s single subject rule. What are your thoughts on that ruling?

I was incredibly disappointed to see Judge Russell, a conservative judge in Carson City, deny our petition because we know that this is popular with Nevadans. We know that Nevadans want to be the people to say and choose their reproductive freedom. But I’m also undeterred, and the coalition that is working with us is also undeterred that we’re going to continue to fight for the ability to be able to gather signatures because we think Nevadans should be the people ultimately having the say, not a judge, not the opposition, right?

But people in the state should be able to make a decision. And that’s what this petition was really about. It was for us to be able to start a very long conversation. Because the other thing is, in Nevada, to amend our state constitution, we have to have two consecutive election votes in order to do that. So this would be allowing us to gather 103,000 signatures spread out over our four congressional districts, and then to get those signatures submitted by the end of June, run a campaign, and get voters to vote for it once in 2024, and then a second time in 2026.

So this is going to be a thoroughly vetted, Nevadans-led campaign. And to be successful, we’ll have people from every corner of the state involved in helping make that happen. But unfortunately, this is a craven attempt by the opposition to stop that democracy in action. And so we’re dedicated to changing that and to appealing that decision.

In his ruling, the judge said that there were a lot of different things in this ballot measure that are not a single subject. What is your take on that?

I will say as a woman, it was really hard for me to understand, and maybe that’s because I’ve lived that experience myself. I have a child, I’ve planned my family, I’ve taken birth control, I’ve given birth, I’ve had to have long-term contraception, all these things. And so to me, it is absolutely one subject.

Reproductive rights is not something that anybody really looks at in a single issue, meaning when you think about birth control, you’re also thinking about childbirth. When you think about how you’re going to access these healthcare services, every single one is interrelated and part of a life cycle, depending on where you are in your life and where you are with your family. And so to me, this is a very basic thing. I understand that Judge Russell as an older man may not have that same experience that I do.

You could talk to probably someone who’s 13 years old, who would look at that list and immediately understand the connection between all of those things, that they all have to do with reproduction. But that was not something that the judge was willing to consider.

I think we will have another opportunity, hopefully, to talk to the state Supreme Court about it or to appeal this decision. And I’m hopeful that this won’t be as much of an unbelievable connection to those folks.

[Editor’s note: Since we interviewed Roberson, Nevadans for Reproductive Freedom has filed a second ballot measure proposal to protect abortion access. The newer proposed constitutional amendment would protect the right to have an abortion until fetal viability, usually about 23 or 24 weeks of pregnancy, or when needed to protect the life or health of the pregnant person. This second measure only focuses on abortion and not the other reproductive rights included in the initial measure.

In an interview with the Nevada Independent, Roberson said the new effort was simply a back-up plan designed to resolve concerns about the single subject rule, in case the Nevada Supreme Court upholds Russell’s ruling.]

What can Nevadans do if they want to ensure abortion rights wind up on the ballot or if they want to help, how can they get involved?

We have on our website, https://www.nv4reprofreedom.org, a volunteer link where folks can sign up. What they could do right now is get involved with Reproductive Freedom for All or Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the two orgs that have volunteer advocacy efforts. So we have organizers who we work directly with folks in the community that we could connect them with. And we have a monthly meeting that we do, all that kind of stuff.

But really gathering signatures will be the thing. Once we overcome this court hurdle, to be able to help us in gathering signatures, to sign yourself, and then to encourage your family and friends to do so. It is wild how expensive it is to gather signatures and get to the ballot and so every volunteer that helps us puts more money into being able to actually win the campaign.

Is there anything else you want to add or you think is important to know?

I think it’s just important to know that Nevadans have spoken time and time again that we support reproductive freedom. It’s affirming a direction that our state has long believed in, that we believe in everybody making choices that are right for them and their families and that politicians should not interfere. But the truth of it is that it’s still under threat. That’s what this court decision last month told us—that there’s still people in our state government that will try to stop this effort from moving forward. And so we need as much help as we can get. It’s not a time to sit on the sidelines, it’s a time to be proactive.

The day that the Dobbs decision came out, my child turned five, my little girl. And so it was a big day for me personally on a lot of fronts, but it was also a moment where I understood that she is growing up with less rights than I had, less rights than my mother had even. And that can’t stand, that has to change. And so this is an opportunity for us to do that and to stand up and to do it in a really substantive way. It’s not just going to a march, it’s not just standing in the streets. It’s actually doing something permanent and historic that could protect future Nevadans for generations to come.

 

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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