Arizona House votes to repeal Civil War-era abortion ban

The Arizona House voted Wednesday to repeal a Civil War-era ban on nearly all abortions that is set to take effect as early as June 8. The measure now heads to the state Senate, which could grant final passage next week.

The 1864 abortion law took effect briefly after Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022 but was soon blocked by the courts. It was later revived by the state’s highest court April 9, inciting national uproar and political panic among Republicans who worry that the ban will hurt their chances of winning elections this year, including the presidential contest.

GOP anxieties about the politics of a near-total abortion ban have led to an unlikely, albeit temporary, alliance between Democrats, a small number of Republican lawmakers mostly in swing districts and allies of former president Donald Trump — including U.S. Senate candidate Kari Lake, who had initially reversed her position on the ban and made personal appeals to GOP lawmakers, urging them to repeal the law.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who has bragged about his role in overturning Roe, quickly voiced his dissatisfaction with the Arizona ruling, saying the state Supreme Court had gone too far and promising that it would be “straightened out” by “the governor and everybody else.”

Despite that high-level pressure, Republicans in the Arizona House blocked two previous attempts to vote to repeal the law. Last week, state House Speaker Ben Toma (R) urged his colleagues to slow down and carefully consider what he called a “very complicated topic.” On Wednesday, Toma lamented rushing the bill through the legislature.

Three Republicans in the House — Reps. Matt Gress, Tim Dunn and Justin Wilmeth — crossed party lines Wednesday to vote with all of the chamber’s Democrats. After the vote, the speaker removed Gress from a coveted assignment to the House Appropriations Committee.

“This law is not perfect,” Dunn said in a statement, stressing that he is personally opposed to abortion. “Unfortunately, protecting women in life-threatening situations and accounting for cases of rape and incest were not considered at the time of its passing.”

Even if the bill to repeal the 1864 law is approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, the near-total abortion ban could still take effect for several months. Bills typically take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends. Once in place, a law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy would prevail.

The legislation now moves to the state Senate, where it needs votes from at least two Republicans in addition to all of the chamber’s Democrats. The Senate is already moving forward with an identical version of the repeal bill, signaling that the GOP could support the bill approved by the House on Wednesday. The earliest that the Senate could vote on the House version is May 1, based on the chamber’s schedule, according to legislative staffers.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) would then need to sign it into law, which she has said she would do.

In an interview Wednesday, Hobbs stressed the time-sensitive nature of the repeal effort. The ban would prohibit all abortions except those necessary to save a pregnant person’s life and would punish abortion providers with jail time. She said she was relieved that the House voted to repeal the 1864 law, which she said has created “chaos and confusion.”

“I am hopeful the Senate does the right thing and sends it to my desk so I can sign it,” Hobbs said. Should that happen, she said she is “hopeful” that the state Supreme Court views any repeal as a reason to continue to stay the old law.

“It would be devastating if this ban was in effect for any period of time,” Hobbs said.

Several Republicans who support the 1864 abortion ban expressed extreme frustration with their colleagues who crossed party lines to repeal the law.

“I am disgusted today,” state Rep. Rachel Jones (R) said. “Life is one of the tenets of our Republican platform. To see people go back on that value is egregious to me.”

Some Republican resistance to the ruling emerged as soon as the Arizona Supreme Court announced it. In the hours after the decision, several GOP state lawmakers issued statements condemning the 1864 law and urging their colleagues to repeal it; they included Gress and Sens. Shawnna Bolick and T.J. Shope — who all hail from swing districts that could be competitive in November.

The following day, Gress moved to suspend the House’s rules to bring a motion forward to repeal the law, a maneuver that surprised and angered many of his Republican colleagues. When he was shut down by the GOP majority, the Democrats erupted into chants of “Shame, shame, shame!”

For the past two weeks, antiabortion groups in Arizona and across the country have aggressively targeted Republicans they believe to be “on the verge of caving” with text and email campaigns, reminding them of the commitments they’ve made to the antiabortion cause.

“If you’re so weak as a legislator that you would suddenly change your views on abortion because you’re worried about your reelection, that tells me you’re a politician and not a leader,” said Kristan Hawkins, the president of the national antiabortion group Students for Life, which has been lobbying Arizona Republicans.

After the state Supreme Court ruling, Cathi Herrod, the president of the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, argued that abortion is not the defining political issue Democrats are making it out to be. Herrod is a leading voice in the opposition to abortion and for decades has shaped the state’s conversation on reproductive laws.

“Republicans aren’t going to win or lose the election on abortion,” she said. “Top of the mind for Arizona voters continues to be border security, gas, rent and groceries.”

Several Republican lawmakers vehemently disagreed in interviews last week, recognizing that many constituents in swing districts do not want a near-total abortion ban.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said state Sen. Ken Bennett, who represents a conservative area and who once presided over the state Senate as president and also served as secretary of state. “If we don’t repeal the 1864 law … there’s probably two or three … Republicans that don’t have a chance of getting elected probably or reelected.”

Even Arizonans who vehemently oppose abortion are unsure about exactly where their legislature should draw the line. Over the past few weeks, many have gathered at the Capitol to voice their opinions on the issue.

Caroline Helton, a 64-year-old from Mesa, said she was deeply concerned about a referendum likely to appear on the ballot in November that would protect abortion until the point of viability, or around 24 weeks.

“I’m not completely antiabortion, but they have gone too far,” said Helton, who hopes her legislators will ultimately agree to preserve the 15-week law that is in effect.

Deborah Tyler, 71, said she is “conflicted” about the 1864 abortion ban, in part because it does not include exceptions for rape and incest. “I don’t know,” said Tyler, who lives in the Phoenix area.

“I haven’t drawn a hard line,” she added, standing outside the statehouse last week. “I’m going to listen.”

Abortion rights advocates have called on lawmakers to repeal the ban immediately.

“Many on each side of the aisle in the last week have expressed that it’s the right thing to do, so we’re looking for them to walk the talk,” said Dawn Penich, spokesperson for Arizona for Abortion Access, the group behind the abortion referendum.

Sanchez reported from Phoenix.

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