Arizona House votes to repeal abortion ban

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The Arizona House voted Wednesday to repeal a 19th-century abortion ban that the state Supreme Court revived earlier this month.

The move, which tees up passage in the state Senate next week, is likely to come as a relief for abortion-rights proponents — and former President Donald Trump.

After the state high court’s decision, Trump called on Arizona lawmakers to amend the 1864 law as Republicans warned that an unpopular near-total abortion ban could doom their chances in the presidential battleground state and jeopardize picking up a key U.S. Senate seat. For the past two weeks, President Joe Biden and Democrats have used the state court decision to highlight the consequences of Trump’s promise that he would leave abortion to the states in the post-Roe era.

"Trump was literally taking us back 160 years. He says it's up to the states — this is all about states' rights. But he's wrong," Biden said Tuesday. "The Supreme Court was wrong. There should be a constitutional right in the federal Constitution, a federal right, and it shouldn't matter where in America you live. This isn't about states' rights, it's about women's rights."

Republican divisions on abortion post-Roe are not unique to Arizona. They have also roiled legislatures in Indiana, South Carolina and West Virginia over the past two years. But Republican lawmakers in Arizona have found themselves in the spotlight since the high court’s decision given the state’s electoral importance.

Three Republicans in the GOP-controlled House, led by state Rep. Matt Gress, broke with their caucus to join Democrats in supporting the repeal. Gress, who represents a key swing district in the legislature, has worked across the aisle for the past two weeks to force a vote on the issue but only secured enough support on Wednesday.

"Today, the Arizona House acted on a bipartisan basis to repeal our state’s territorial abortion law that is unworkable and out of line with the values of Arizonans,” Gress said in a statement. “As someone who is both Pro-Life and the product of strong women in my life, I refuse to buy into the false notion pushed by the extremes on both sides of this issue that we cannot respect and protect women and defend new life at the same time.”

But Gress’s Republican colleagues quickly rebuked him, with House Speaker Ben Toma stripping him of his seat on the Appropriations Committee. The intraparty clash highlights the challenges of balancing ideological purity and political pragmatism in the post-Roe era.

“Abortion kills life. Abortion kills the most vulnerable members of our society,” Toma said. “Just because the mother of a child may not want that child does not mean that the child is not precious or has inherent value.”

Some anti-abortion groups lambasted Gress and the two other Republicans who broke with their caucus. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said her organization would be “out knocking doors in the GOP primary for sure.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, lamented the bill’s House passage but reiterated her organization’s commitment to electing anti-abortion candidates come November. She framed their electoral work in the state as an effort to protect the 15-week abortion ban that was in effect before the court decision and remains so.

“Between now and November, the far Left and pro-abortion forces will spend tens of millions of dollars to muddy the waters, fearmonger and sow confusion to advance an extreme abortion agenda,” Dannenfelser said. Republican Senate candidate “Kari Lake and all GOP candidates and elected officials must bring clarity to Arizona voters by campaigning vigorously in support of Arizona’s 15-week protection.”

The Republican-dominated Senate appears to have enough GOP votes to pass the repeal measure, after two Republican lawmakers joined Democrats to introduce an identical piece of legislation in their chamber last week. And Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who for months has urged the GOP-controlled legislature to repeal the 1864 law, has promised to sign the legislation as soon as it reaches her desk.

“Today, I am glad to see the House follow my calls to repeal the archaic 1864 total abortion ban that could jail doctors and endanger the lives of women in Arizona,” Hobbs said in a statement. “As long as I am Governor, I will do everything in my power to protect and expand reproductive freedom, and I will continue to serve as a backstop to the harmful legislation being pushed by extremists in an attempt to control women’s bodies.”

Still, abortion access in Arizona is likely to remain in jeopardy — at least in the near term. The legislation, if enacted, won’t take effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends — a date that remains uncertain as lawmakers continue to negotiate with the governor over the state budget.

The 1864 abortion ban is set to take effect June 9. While Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes are using their powers to prevent the law’s enforcement, those actions may not provide enough assurance for abortion providers to continue offering the procedure.

And while abortion-rights groups praised the House vote, calling it a “major win for reproductive freedom,” they lamented that the state still has a 15-week limit on abortion in place and reiterated their commitment to passing a ballot measure in November that would protect the right to abortion until fetal viability, about 24 weeks of pregnancy.

“Our right to control our bodies and lives is hanging on by a thread,” said Angela Florez, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. “Abortion bans are out-of-step with the will of Arizonans and will force pregnant people to leave their communities for essential health care."

Republican lawmakers have also not ruled out passing a resolution to put their own abortion measure on the November ballot, a move that abortion-rights proponents fear could confuse voters and make it harder to pass their proposal. Shortly before the House convened Wednesday, Republican lawmakers took a vote allowing them to refer measures to the ballot late in the legislative session.

Three options were presented to lawmakers in a slideshow shown during a GOP legislative caucus meeting last week: protecting the legislature’s ability to set abortion policy without setting a limit on the number of weeks; prohibiting abortion after 14 weeks of pregnancy; or banning it after roughly six-weeks gestation.

Linley Wilson, general counsel for the Arizona House, wrote in the presentation that the strategy not only “changes the narrative” on abortion, but that any ballot measure could draw votes away from the abortion-rights effort.