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Arizona House votes to repeal 1864 abortion law

Dr. Barbara Zipkin, with Scooter, consults with patient Anna about her options for an abortion at Camelback Family Planning on April 17 in Phoenix.  (Gina Ferazzi)
By Jack Healy, Elizabeth Dias and Kellen Browning New York Times

PHOENIX – Arizona took a major step Wednesday toward scrapping an 1864 law banning abortion, when three Republican lawmakers in the state House of Representatives broke ranks with their party and voted with Democrats to repeal the ban.

Republicans have narrow majorities in both chambers of Arizona’s Legislature, and had blocked earlier repeal efforts in the two weeks since the Arizona Supreme Court ignited a political firestorm by reviving the Civil War-era law.

But on Wednesday, despite last-minute delay tactics and emotional speeches from conservatives who equated abortion with murder and slavery, Republican lawmakers from districts in the Phoenix area and a rural farming county joined with Democrats to pass the repeal bill, 32-28.

The state Senate could take up a vote on repeal next week. With two Republican senators already supporting repeal, Democrats say they believe they will prevail. Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat and a vocal supporter of abortion rights, has been urging lawmakers to repeal the 1864 law and is expected to sign a repeal if it reaches her desk.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, a Democrat, who introduced the one-sentence bill to repeal the 1864 law, said on the floor of the House after the vote Wednesday. “The eyes of the world have been on Arizona. A repeal keeps us from going backward.”

Democrats and abortion-rights groups celebrated the vote as an important move toward undoing what they called a draconian intrusion into women’s rights. The 1864 law outlaws abortions from the moment of conception except to save the mother’s life, and it makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

“This is a major win for reproductive freedom,” Angela Florez, president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, said in a statement.

Some Republicans – including former President Donald Trump, who has taken credit for overturning Roe v. Wade – have urged the Legislature to scrap the 1864 law quickly, to try to head off a possible election-year backlash. But conservative politicians in Arizona and abortion opponents who filled the House gallery Wednesday angrily denounced the repeal vote. As the members prepared to vote, some anti-abortion activists stood silently with their hands raised. Some quietly prayed. Others walked out before the votes were tallied.

“I don’t know what just happened here,” said House Speaker Ben Toma, a Republican. “I’m done.”

The bill passed with support from every Democrat in the chamber, as well as from three Republican representatives – Matt Gress, Tim Dunn and Justin Wilmeth. Moments after the vote, Toma removed Gress from his seat on the House’s appropriations committee. He declined to say whether the move was punishment for Gress’ support of the repeal.

“I’m disgusted, I’m disappointed,” said state Rep. Alexander Kolodin, a Republican who tried to thwart the repeal vote Wednesday by introducing a measure that would allow private citizens to sue abortion providers who violated Arizona’s laws.

After the repeal passed Wednesday, Cathi Herrod, the president of the Center for Arizona Policy and one of Arizona’s most prominent opponents of abortion, wrote on the social media platform X: “Tears today for the lives of unborn children whose lives will be lost and their mothers harmed by today’s Arizona House.”

They stood in contrast to a handful of top Republicans, including Trump, who face competitive November elections and who sought to distance themselves from what appeared to be a politically unpopular law.

In a celebratory statement, Yolanda Bejarano, the chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, called out each of the Republicans who supported the repeal, saying they “are rightfully scared that Arizonans will vote them out in November.”

“MAGA Republicans have spent the last week lying about their stance on abortion because they know that when abortion is on the ballot, Democrats win, every time,” Bejarano said.

Political analysts said Republicans who voted to go around their leaders risked alienating their own voters in conservative districts, as well as jeopardizing their other priorities as the Legislature starts working to pass Arizona’s annual budget.

Although the state Supreme Court revived the 1864 law on April 9, it would not go back into effect before June 8, according to Attorney General Kris Mayes, a Democrat.

The fight over the ban has consumed Arizona politics since the court decided that it could be enforced even though Arizona passed a law two years ago that allowed abortions through 15 weeks.

The court put its ruling temporarily on hold, meaning that abortions have been allowed to continue under the 15-week rules.

Abortion providers, who face two to five years in prison if convicted under the 1864 law, said they were likely to stop performing all abortions once it takes effect. But there is growing tension and disagreement over when, exactly, that might be.

Mayes has said that she would not prosecute anyone under the 1864 law. She has also said that her office was exploring other legal challenges that could delay its implementation beyond June 8.

On Tuesday night, Mayes asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider its decision reviving the 1864 ban on the grounds that abortions were permitted under the 2022 law.

In contrast, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group that argued in court to uphold the ban, said it believed county prosecutors could start enforcing the law this week.

Because the legislature is meeting only once a week, lawmakers and abortion providers worry that their window to get a repeal enacted is closing rapidly.

“There is a lot of concern,” said state Sen. Eva Burch, a Democrat and nurse practitioner who gave a speech last month describing how she had to get an abortion to terminate a nonviable pregnancy. “It’s a scary time to be a pregnant person in Arizona.”

For anti-abortion activists, the prospect of repeal is another sign that they are losing ground, as opposition to extreme restrictions grows. Arizona is a state where their movement has deep roots, and where they have clung to the hope that allies in the Legislature would withstand pressure to change the 1864 law.

After the House vote Wednesday, they rallied around a message that they would persevere, even though the prospects for stopping a repeal have dwindled.

Debi Vandenboom, a director at Arizona Women of Action, said she was “deeply saddened but not surprised” by the House’s vote to advance the repeal.

“It is always unfortunate when politicians who claim to be pro-life are willing to betray women and children when it seems politically expedient to do so,” she said. “The battle is far from over. I, and others like me, are in it for the long haul. In Arizona we have the opportunity and responsibility to get this right.”

Greg Scott, vice president of policy at the Center for Arizona Policy, called the day “tragic” for Arizona. “The law that has been on the books for the entire history of the state is one of the most life-protective laws in the country,” he said. “While we mourn today, we aren’t pausing for a moment in our advocacy for unborn children.”

But their options are limited, now that some Republican lawmakers have sided with the Democrats.

For their part, abortion rights supporters are working to capitalize on their growing energy and momentum, and hope to pass a referendum in November to guarantee abortion rights in the state constitution.

The advance of the repeal bill is “one step towards possible improvement,” said Tricia Sauer, an organizer with Indivisible who was in the House gallery for the vote Wednesday. “But what we’re really focused on is continuing to collect signatures for the only real option for restoring reproductive freedoms.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.