Podcast / Start Making Sense / Feb 28, 2024

Abortion Could Make Florida a Swing State; Plus Ukrainians in Exile

Abortion Could Make Florida a Swing State; Plus “Ukrainians in Exile”

On this episode of Start Making Sense, Amy Littlefield on reproductive rights in Florida, and Janek Ambros talks about his documentary short film.

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The Nation Podcasts

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Abortion could make Florida a swing state in 2024; plus ‘Ukrainians in Exile’ | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

An abortion rights amendment to Florida’s constitution has gotten enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Now it’s up to the state’s supreme court to decide whether people will get to vote on it, potentially transforming the electorate there in November. The Nation’s abortion access correspondent, Amy Littlefield, is on the podcast to report.

Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: This week is the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To commemorate the anniversary, The Nation has released a new documentary short film, Ukrainians in Exile. We’ll speak with the filmmaker, Janek Ambros.

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Faith Halstead, chants along with other protesters and activists near the Florida State Capitol.

(The Washington Post / Getty Images)

An abortion rights amendment to Florida’s Constitution has gotten enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Now, it’s up to the state’s Supreme Court to decide whether people will get to vote on it, potentially transforming the electorate there in November. The Nation’s abortion access correspondent, Amy Littlefield, is on the podcast to report.

Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: This week is the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To commemorate the anniversary, The Nation has released a new documentary short film, Ukrainians in Exile. We’ll speak with the filmmaker, Janek Ambros.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Democrats vs. Billionaires, plus Hamas vs. Fatah | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

The issues and the language that win for Democrats: research shows it’s not just “jobs,” but attacking the rich. Bhaskar Sunkara, President of The Nation and author of The Socialist Manifesto, explains.

Also: why did Hamas decide to provoke massive Israeli retaliation now? Hussein Ibish, who writes for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and Daily Beast, says Hamas had a clear political goal on October 7: to defeat the Palestinian secular nationalists of Fatah and the PLO.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, This is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener.  Later in the show: This week is the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  To commemorate the anniversary, The Nation has posted a new documentary short – it’s called “Ukrainians in Exile.” we’ll speak with the filmmaker, Janek Ambros.  But first: “Florida is going to be the most important state to watch in the 2024 election.” Amy Littlefield will explain – in a minute.
Now it’s time to talk about politics in Florida, where an abortion rights amendment has gotten enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. For that story, we turn to Amy Littlefield. She’s The Nation’s abortion access correspondent and a journalist who focuses on reproductive rights, healthcare, and religion. Amy Littlefield, welcome back.

Amy Littlefield: Hi, Jon. It’s great to be back with you.

JW: You say Florida is going to be the most important state to watch in the 2024 election. I have a lot of political friends who disagree with that, who say Florida has become a red state. Let’s face it, Trump won the state in 2016 and 2020. The legislature has a Republican super majority. Nevertheless, you think Florida is still a battleground state. Why is that?

AL: I know I’m fighting an uphill battle here, Jon, to convince people that Florida is in play. Okay. And let’s not forget that the Governor Ron DeSantis recently considered a presidential contender is a man who likes to send asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard as a fun hobby on the side. But it’s time to start taking Florida seriously. And one of the reasons, Jon, is that Florida has to be important because it is the last bastion of abortion access in the southeast. The South is basically a funnel of states where abortion is banned that are all directing patients into Florida. And I have to say, I’ve got my abortion goggles on. I will admit that that is how I look at everything.
But you know what? Abortion has the power to do things at the ballot box that people assume are impossible. And we have seen that with Michigan, where an abortion rights ballot measure helped Democrats get trifecta control of the state government for the first time in years. We saw that in 2022 in Kentucky, a state that has among the highest percentages of anti-abortion residents in the country where voters rejected an amendment declaring there’s no right to abortion in the state constitution. So, especially in the wake of the Dobbs decision, overturning Roe v. Wade and the collective outrage going on and the momentum behind these ballot initiatives, I think nothing is impossible. And I also think it’ll be fascinating to see, Florida is such a diverse and big state, so representative of the country in so many ways. It’ll be fascinating to see how this plays out there.

JW: Lots to talk about. Florida is one of a dozen states that have abortion rights initiatives on the ballot or in the process of qualifying to get enough signatures. Arizona is one of them. There are a lot of obstacles to getting this initiative before the voters in Florida, but the group organizing it, Floridians Protecting Freedom has already done quite a bit. What have they accomplished so far?

AL: Florida has so many hurdles that have to be cleared in order to get a measure on the ballot, they had to gather and verify almost 900,000 signatures from at least half of the state’s 28 congressional districts. And they blew past even their own expectations. I think on that one, they verified close to a million signatures. And then of course they’ve got the DeSantis administration and anti-abortion state officials, including Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who have been throwing up whatever obstacles they can scheme up to try to prevent this thing from getting on the ballot. Florida also has the highest threshold for citizen-initiated amendments in the country, which means that in order to pass this amendment, if it makes it onto the ballot, is going to need more than 60% of votes.

JW: Let me just underline that. Majorities do not rule on Florida amendments. It takes a super majority, 60%. This is what Ohio voters turned down, but Florida initiatives don’t become law unless they get more than 60% – 

AL: Which is hard, but not impossible.

JW: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask. What do the polls say about support for abortion rights in Florida?

AL: So, abortion is really popular, Jon. I mean, Lauren Brenzel, who is leading the campaign there in Florida, said that they’re polling so far is consistent with about a decade of research in Florida that shows 70% and upwards of Floridians support access to safe and legal abortion, so-

JW: 70% – let me emphasize that. Not 50%, not 60%, 70% support.

AL: Abortion is popular, and the campaign is banking on it being popular among Republicans, being popular among unaffiliated voters. And we have seen that play out. I mean, I was on the ground reporting for The Nation in Kansas in the wake of the Dobbs decision when everyone was commenting on what a red state Kansas is. I mean, this is the home of George Tiller, the assassinated abortion provider. I mean, we knew the odds there. And yet Kansas surprised everybody except those of us who have been chanting “Abortion is popular,” and driving everyone crazy for years. And Florida does have a history of passing progressive ballot measures. For example, in 2020, making that 60%, they got close to 61% of Floridians voting in favor of a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. And so, this is not impossible, although as you point out, Ohio tried to do this, abortion opponents in Ohio tried to raise their threshold in order to stop the abortion rights ballot initiative from passing there, and Florida’s already got that threshold. So yes, a steep climb.

JW: The groups that organize abortion rights initiatives, Florida and everywhere else, are very much aware of the legal obstacles to qualifying. And they have recruited the best and brightest legal experts to draft language for the initiative that anticipates the possible objections that anti-abortion officials will make when these things go before the State Supreme Court. So, I want to look exactly at the language of the Florida initiative, which I’m sure the best and the brightest legal minds went into drafting. What exactly does the initiative say?

AL: The ballot summary that voters are going to see when they head into the ballot box, assuming that this clears the Florida Supreme Court and makes it onto the ballot in November, says, “No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health as determined by the patient’s healthcare provider. This amendment does not change the Legislature’s constitutional authority to require notification to a parent or guardian before a minor has an abortion.”

JW: That last part has been controversial within the abortion rights movement.

AL: That’s right. I mean, there’s two parts that have been controversial within the abortion rights movement. One is obviously this is not trying to repeal Florida’s existing requirement that minors seeking an abortion need to notify a parent or guardian first. It also has language around viability.  Critics who I’ve talked to within the Reproductive Health and Rights Movement, say, “Why are we reviving the ghost of Roe v Wade,” right? This is a standard that was in place where abortion states could ban abortion after viability, and this can lead to deeper stigmatization of abortions that take place later in pregnancy. And this question over whether to include this major concession around allowing abortion bans after viability has really divided the movement in a lot of these states where ballot initiatives are being considered.
Because there are people who say, Roe is gone. We need to start over with a sweeping framework that includes everybody and doesn’t leave people behind, including the women of color, the young people who are more likely to be pushed later into pregnancy and need an abortion post-viability. And then there’s people who say, “Look, this is Florida,” or “This is Missouri”, or “We’ve got a steep hill to climb here, and we’ve got to find something that we think has a higher chance of winning Republican voters and making it through a very conservative State Supreme Court.” But it forces abortion rights lawyers into this really strange position of having to talk about how important and significant and ironclad viability is when people within the movement would say it’s more of a legal standard than actually a medically solid one.

JW: Now this has just been argued before the State Supreme Court and the opponents of this led by, as you say, the State Attorney General. What was the heart of their argument about why this should be ruled off the ballot?

AL: Their argument is that the language that voters were going to see on the ballot was misleading. And this sort of felt like they were trying to come up with an argument and they had a lot on their side, even with an argument that seemed pretty tenuous, which is because of the composition of the Florida Supreme Court, right? So, five of the seven members who heard this case were appointed by Ron DeSantis. A sixth one is married to a co-author of Florida’s six-week abortion ban, which is not currently in effect, but could come into effect depending on what that very same Florida State Supreme Court rules.
And so, the odds were definitely not in favor of abortion rights just based sheerly on the composition of that court. And yet when the court heard the Florida Attorney General’s claims about the ballot summary being misleading during a hearing on February 7th, it actually went surprisingly well. And that was kind of a nice surprise, I think, for the abortion rights supporters in Florida, Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz, who’s a DeSantis appointee, he had led a private courthouse tour for abortion opponents in 2022. Even he seemed skeptical of this argument that the summary was somehow misleading. And he said, “The people of Florida aren’t stupid. They can figure this out.”

JW: When will we hear from the Florida State Supreme Court about whether people in Florida get to vote on abortion rights?

AL: They need to rule by April 1st. So, that is when we will know for sure if this initiative has cleared the Florida Supreme Court and will make it to the ballot in November.

JW: Now, let’s assume that it does make it to the ballot. We have to talk about Latinos in Florida, a quarter of the state’s population. We are told that Latinos are moving, right? That Latinos are becoming Trump supporters, especially Latino men, especially in Florida. What can you tell us about Latino voters in Florida and abortion rights?

AL: Well, I can tell you that at least one organizer that I talked to, Andrea Mercado is out to prove you wrong on that point, Jon. She believes that Latinos, first of all are a very diverse population in Florida. The demographics have been changing. So, she is confident that Latino women especially are going to have their chance to show that they’re quite progressive on the abortion rights measure. She pointed out that her mom had made a donation to the campaign, and I think it’s going to be the campaign is gearing up to have a Spanish language arm to really find messaging that’s going to work and the diversity of Latino communities that they have all across the state. And I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how this ends up changing who shows up, because of course, it’s not just about who lives in Florida. It’s about who decides that they care enough to show up and vote on election day.

JW: Since that Supreme Court hearing, the Alabama State Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are human beings, does this have any effect, any implications for the Florida initiative?

AL: When I watched this Florida Supreme Court hearing on the ballot amendment, there was this curveball that the Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz came up with where he started asking about personhood. Now, personhood is the holy grail of the anti-abortion movement. It has been always, right? They want to have embryos from the moment of fertilization declared to be human beings with equal rights. This would be catastrophic, of course, for IVF, for birth control, for anyone who’s pregnant, and that pregnancy doesn’t continue. It’s a very sweeping paradigm. It’s always been the end goal. And so, it was kind of a head scratcher why the Chief Justice was bringing this up in a hearing that really didn’t seem to have anything to do with that. And even the attorney who was making the anti-abortion argument against this amendment for the state was completely caught off guard when Carlos Muñiz started asking questions about whether the Florida Constitution protects fetal personhood.
And he said, “To be honest, I haven’t really thought about that. I don’t really know.” And then two days later, Liberty Council, which is a conservative anti-abortion organization that’s been working with the state of Florida on this, followed up with a briefing saying, “Hey, we took a look and here’s all the sections of Florida law that we think mention legal protection for an unborn child or an unborn person.” So, they were sort of teeing up this idea that embryos and fetuses are people under the state constitution, which would set up a really historic showdown, right? If we have an amendment that passes, it clears all the hurdles and passes, and the Florida Constitution then protects abortion rights. And then we also have a state Supreme Court that seems interested in the argument that the Constitution also protects the personhood of embryos or fetuses. It makes you sort of wonder whether there was some, I don’t know, communication here between the court in Alabama and the one in Florida.
But we have this court decision out of Alabama where they’re saying that embryos, frozen embryos are people, are human beings, and really catering to that personhood argument. And of course, then Liberty Council took the opportunity once that Alabama decision had come down to submit another follow-up briefing to the Florida Supreme Court saying, “Hey, take a look at this Alabama ruling. This sort of seems like what Chief Justice Mooney was talking about. And isn’t this interesting? And we can use this as a precedent now to argue that the proposed amendment in Florida is actually a no-go.” And so, it’s really important to look at how these different arguments are building towards fetal personhood, which again has always been the end game. And of course, in the meantime, it has to be said. I really feel for IVF patients in Alabama right now, because this has been extremely distressing for people who want to be pregnant and are going through the process of IVF, which can be very invasive and distressing, and now they’ve been thrown into this total confusion and limbo, while everyone figures out whether IVF can continue in the state.

JW: We have to talk about Trump for just a minute. 

AL: No.  [Laughter]

JW: Sorry. Just for a minute. Trump has carefully avoided taking a position on abortion because he wants to get elected and he knows how unpopular it is. Florida has a 15-week abortion ban right now. Lots of other states also have 15 weeks. We are told that Trump is likely to endorse a 16-week ban. Maybe I missed something, but has 16 weeks been an issue for the anti-abortion movement?

AL: No, Jon. Not as far as I can tell, Trump just made this up. I mean, I have talked to anti-abortion activists. I have never heard anyone in the anti-abortion movement say, ‘You know, what we really need is a 16-week abortion ban.’ I mean, this is so strange because it satisfies no one, it’s definitely not far enough for anti-abortion activists. It’s too far for abortion rights activists who are saying, “Hello, we’re going to go to the ballot. And we think we have a majority of population, even in red and purple states that are going to support us.” So, I assume he’s got some idea of what he’s doing here, and it’s such an opportunity to just say, all of these gestational age bands are so arbitrary, right? I mean, I guess there’s no reason why 16 weeks makes any less sense than 15, but here we are.

JW: A couple other things about Florida in November may give us hope. One is that a marijuana legalization initiative has qualified with enough signatures for the ballot. In other states and cities that has really boosted turnout of young people significantly. And finally, Taylor Swift has three concerts in Miami just weeks before election day. I wonder if you have any comment on that.

AL: I’m so glad, Jon. This is a career milestone for me because I guess I’m coming out for the first time to The Nation audience as a Swiftie. And I’m just delighted that someone’s asked me a question about Taylor Swift. She’s got a song called “Florida” on her very closely watched upcoming album. She’s got concerts scheduled in Miami. People are wondering, has she got something planned that’s going to help try to tip the scales in Florida? And you know what? I believe in the power of abortion. I also believe in the power of Taylor Swift, Jon. So, I’m not counting anything out right now in Florida.

JW: Taylor Swift’s song “Florida” has not been released yet. By any chance have you heard it?

AL: No, Jon. And if you’ve heard it and you haven’t shared it with me, I would be very upset. I’m waiting for the release of that album just like everybody else.

JW: Amy Littlefield: you can read her report, “Will a Florida Ballot Measure to Protect Abortion Shake Up the State’s Politics This November?” It’s at TheNation.com. Thank you, Amy. This was great.

AL: Thank you so much, Jon. It’s a pleasure.

Jon Wiener: This week is the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has sent 6.5 million Ukrainians into exile, while another 3.7 million people remain forcibly displaced inside the country. To commemorate the anniversary, The Nation has posted a new documentary short. It’s called Ukrainians in Exile, and it’s made by Janek Ambros. He’s a film director, producer and screenwriter, founder of the film production company Assembly Line Entertainment. We reached him today in Los Angeles. Janek Ambros, welcome to the program.

Janek Ambros: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

JW: The documentary shows Ukrainian women and children getting on trains and buses for lives in exile. It’s narrated by a woman named Anya who has stayed in Ukraine, who talks about how the crisis has completely upended her life. The film concludes with Anya saying, “Please help us.” First tell us a little about your own background, your work before this film.

JA: I’ve been making films for quite a while now, doing a lot of experimental films. I did a documentary about the War on Terror, and how it impacts civil liberties and civil rights. I mostly moved over into narrative films, and I like to talk about political issues in my narrative films, and always have character first–those types of movies.
But I would say my family history and background influenced my decision to make this film. And typically, a film you plan for years. You write it. You develop it. This was very strange because the invasion happened, and I was really shocked, and I think my family history, my grandfather was in a Siberian gulag, and I know it’s a totally different makeup now, but that thing really just pulled me there. I just basically found a flight a couple weeks in, and then went primarily to help refugees. But as a film director, I obviously brought my camera. Right?

JW: Tell us a little bit more about your decision to make this film.

JA: When something very intense happens on the news, I think everybody feels this need to want to do something. Where I was in my career, I was like, “I could just go.” My grandmother lives in Central Poland. So I went there first, and then took a train to Przemyśl, which is where the border town is – knew in the back of my head I’d shoot something. I’m very influenced by some of the William Wilder, John Houston films on World War II. It was interesting you said in the beginning that Anya tells people to help. That was the intention. Most of my films are very stylistic, but this one, I really wanted to make a call-to-action film, which I would never do. One thing that maybe makes me a bad documentarian is I didn’t want to bother anybody. I just felt like there was so many people like, “Oh. What happened?” And they’re like, “I fled my home.” You know what I mean? “I’m doing terrible.”

JW: How did you find Anya? Who is she? Is she a writer?

JA: I’d wanted some narration. So I figured it’d be interesting. I’ve never really seen something where somebody who’s still in the country, with a movie about refugees, ponders about, “Well, what happens to them?” So I spoke to a couple journalists who were around there, and they said that they have somebody, but that she was really, really strict about not being named, because this was two weeks in. I think now it might’ve been different, but no one knew what was going to happen at that point. So I think she was just really saying, “You won’t even speak to her. This is somebody who will do it. Her name is Anya. That’s all you’ll know, and that’s it.” I don’t know anything about her at all really, other than that. We communicated through the journalists online.

JW: So you never met her face to face?

JA: No.

JW: Wow. And you don’t actually know her life story, or her family situation?

JA: Nope. That was the deal.

JW: This is not a film where you interview people arriving in a foreign country, and put a microphone in their face, and say, “How does it feel?” You say you didn’t talk to them much. Did you talk to them at all? Did you get any stories from them?

JA: Camera off? For sure. I don’t speak Ukrainian. I speak, but my Polish is not good, but obviously many of them speak English. So I know. I hung out with them, and talked to them for sure. I just didn’t want to have the camera on for that, and that actually probably subconsciously informed how I ended up making it. I don’t think I ever really took notes even. It was just more I was there for a few weeks, obviously. I’m sure that impacted how I told the story, and how it informed even some of my own politics on it.

JW: So you were shooting this for a few weeks. You must have gotten some stories from when the camera was off. What did people tell you? What did they want to tell you? What did they not want to tell you?

JA: I think they saw that I had a camera. I would tell them I’m a filmmaker. One of the things that I was doing actually at first, I was just helping with food at the refugee camp, the typical stuff like, “Hey. We need more water,” or this, or that. But then I started to help a few–these were soldiers essentially who would drive in from Kyiv, come to Przemyśl, and collect goods, because at that point, the Kremlin and the Pentagon thought the whole thing was going to collapse in a few days. So they didn’t have the money that I know everybody there is getting now. So they were having me do runs in Polish Walmarts, and getting tourniquets, and medical equipment. And I go, and go there, and go to the guy who would go into Kyiv, and buy him the stuff, put it on the truck, and he’d do runs.
So that was an interesting thing, because I got to actually speak to people who are essentially fighting, and I think now a lot of times people talk just about the very far East Ukraine, and it’s not that. It was, especially in those first few days, these first few weeks, it was a full-scale invasion. There was a lot of fear because it just felt like this could be it. It was really close those first few months.

JW: You shot this just a few weeks into the war, but of course it wasn’t finished and posted until the past few days. And I noticed a decision you made here was the film does not urge Americans to support Biden’s call for Congress to approve $60 billion more in additional aid. You don’t criticize the Republicans for blocking this. Instead, it concludes with Anya asking viewers to help refugees. How did you decide when you were finishing this film to focus on the refugees rather than on the political questions of American aid?

JA: I made the decision to focus on refugees. I’m not a politician. I wouldn’t call myself a journalist. I wouldn’t call myself even a documentarian. I’m a narrative filmmaker first. And I just felt like that was making a film of what she said, sticking to that, and what I saw was the most appropriate way to make the film. I just wanted to shoot what I saw, and remind the audience of what happened, because I think there’s a lot more support. I’m just talking about general solidarity. It’s obviously way more support those first few months, and that’s why I was reluctant to even release it those first few months, because everybody was “Slava Ukraine.” And I knew that things change, and I knew that when everybody was in a year, or I don’t think I was expecting to wait this long, but I knew that eventually this would have more use now than it did when everybody was willing to adopt a Ukrainian child. And now it’s more pushback, so I felt now it was a good time. So because of those reasons, yeah.

JW: There’s some big names associated with the production of this film. Tell us about them.

JA: Yeah. So Janusz Kamiński, he’s a cinematographer mostly known for his work with Steven Spielberg. He is a cinematographer, and won an Oscar for Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and then pretty much I think every Spielberg since Schindler’s List. Not Jurassic Park, though, I think that was someone else.  And then also an amazing cinematographer, and other movies like Jerry Maguire, Funny People, all that stuff. But he’s really, the connection I think was he’s Polish. He’s somebody I reached out to pretty soon after. I was a big fan of his work, and he immediately wanted to lend his name to it, which was really exciting, because obviously this is very tertiary to the issue at hand, but as a big fan of his work, that was really cool.
And then Liev Schreiber, he’s Ray Donovan in the famous TV show. He’s a wonderful director too. He directed a movie called Everything Is Illuminated with Elijah Wood, which everybody recommends seeing. He’s mostly known for his acting, but that’s an incredible film. We wanted to tie it into at least have a support system where if I’m telling a story of how we should help people, especially people on the ground, just refugees, I wanted to have something where people can actually do something. If it’s a call-to-action film, you should have something that gives a little bit. So Liev Schreiber’s BlueCheck Ukraine did it with us in a way that we were basically just, I would say just directing people if they want, they can donate.
So I couldn’t ask for two better people to have: one to executive produce the film, and then two, just somebody associated with that I can direct, and help him, and his charity.

JW: I wanted to ask you about the last shot. The second to the last shot is a scene of mothers and children expressing their love for each other, but you don’t end on that note. Instead, the last shot, it looks like a keyhole shot from some hidden camera looking down at a street from above, and we see a family of four walking down this street, a narrow street, and then behind them, two dark cars turn the corner, and start to follow them. It’s a very ominous ending. How did you decide to end it that way, and what actually is going on in that shot?

JA: Jon, thank you for saying that. I don’t think anybody’s really even brought that up.  But just recently, right before it released, I emphasized it more: the car honks at them. And to me, that was to say that this is all nice and dandy now, but soon these people, these refugees, are going to start getting honked at, and being told to get out of the way. And that’s the ominous tone, and the warning it leaves.

JW: The short documentary is Ukrainians in Exile, a film by Janek Ambros. You can see it at thenation.com. Janek, thanks for talking with us today.

JA: Thank you, Jon. I appreciate it.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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