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Arizona Republicans again quash effort to repeal 1864 abortion ban

Republicans in the state House stymied a move to repeal the near-total ban, but the state Senate opened the door for a future vote.
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PHOENIX — For the second time in two weeks, Arizona House Republicans rejected an attempt to repeal a near-total ban on abortion from 1864 that was upheld by the battleground state’s Supreme Court.

The move to block the Democratic-led effort again came amid mounting pressure on the Republican-controlled state Legislature to repeal the ban, including from former President Donald Trump and Arizona GOP Senate candidate Kari Lake.

But hours after the House moved twice to block the bill, the Senate voted in favor of a motion to introduce a bill that would repeal the Civil War-era abortion ban. Two Republicans joined every Democrat in the chamber on the vote, which leaves the door open for potential action on a repeal bill in the coming weeks.

Senate Democrats quickly drafted that bill, prompting a recessed House to reconvene. The Senate read the bill Wednesday night, but won't take further action until next week.

Upon reconvening, House Republicans voted to adjourn until next Wednesday without taking any further action, leaving the path for a repeal bill murky.

Wednesday’s harried proceedings in the Legislature kicked off with a highly anticipated House legislative session during which Democrats introduced a bill to repeal the 160-year-old abortion ban and filed a motion to Republican House leaders requesting an immediate vote.

People protest abortion restrictions.
People protest in the district of Republican state Rep. Matt Gress in Scottsdale, Ariz., on April 14.Caitlin O'Hara / Reuters

Under Arizona House rules, a majority of the chamber that includes the speaker was required to vote to suspend the rules to hold an immediate vote. Republican House Speaker Ben Toma has repeatedly expressed his opposition to repealing the ban.

The vote failed, prompting Democrats to move again to force a vote, which also fell short.

"The last thing we should be doing today is rushing a bill through the legislative process to repeal a law that has been enacted and reaffirmed by the Legislature several times," Toma said after the first vote to kill advancement of the ban.

"And I would ask everyone in this chamber to respect the fact that some of us believe that abortion is, in fact, the murder of children," he added.

Democratic lawmakers have faced an uphill climb in repealing the abortion ban, as Republicans hold a two-seat majority in both legislative chambers.

During Wednesday's House votes, one Republican — Matt Gress — joined state Democrats in their effort to repeal the abortion ban. Another Republican, Rep. David Cook, had signaled he supported a repeal, but he told The Arizona Republic after the vote that suspending the chamber's rules wasn't the "right way" to do it.

Wednesday's proceedings marked the latest chapter in the fight over abortion rights in the crucial battleground following the Arizona Supreme Court's bombshell decision last week.

The law the court ruled was enforceable made abortion a felony punishable by two to five years in prison for anyone who performs one or helps a woman obtain one. The law — which was codified in 1901 and again in 1913, after Arizona gained statehood — outlaws abortion from the moment of conception but includes an exception to save the woman’s life.

Following that ruling, Republicans across Arizona and the country called on state lawmakers to repeal the ban as the party has continued to deal with blowback over the issue of reproductive rights in the nearly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

The decision also added the swing state to the growing lists of places where abortion care is effectively banned — and set off an explosion of political activity. Democrats furiously undertook efforts to repeal the ban, while Republicans scrambled feverishly to offset the political fallout by discussing a series of possible contingencies.

Those options include pushing alternative ballot measures to compete with a proposed constitutional amendment to expand abortion rights in the state, according to a leaked strategy document circulated among Arizona Republicans and obtained Monday by NBC News

The document made no mention of repealing the ban. Arizona House Republicans blocked an effort by Democrats during their session last Wednesday to repeal the ban.

Abortion rights supporters and Democrats blasted House Republicans' moves.

“Ask the women of Arizona if they are ‘happy’ or they think it is ‘incredible’ that Trump overturned Roe and took their rights back to 1864," Biden campaign spokesperson James Singer said in a statement.

Wednesday's votes came in packed chambers, while protesters on both sides of the abortion issue gathered outside the Capitol.

The post-Roe political landscape has put Republican lawmakers and candidates at every level of government on the defensive over where they stand on limiting abortion access.

Arizona has been no exception. After last week's state Supreme Court's ruling, numerous Arizona Republicans who had previously celebrated the end of federal protections for the procedure sought political cover by distancing themselves from the decision, including Lake and U.S. Reps. David Schweikert and Juan Ciscomani. All three face tough races this fall.

Despite the failed repeal efforts, voters are likely to have the power this November to decide on the future of the ban themselves.

Abortion-rights groups in the state are likely to succeed in putting a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would create a “fundamental right” to receive abortion care up until fetal viability, or about the 24th week of pregnancy.

If voters approve the ballot measure, it would effectively undo the 1864 ban, which now remains law in the state. It would bar the state from restricting abortion care in situations in which the health or life of the pregnant person is at risk after the point of viability, according to the treating health care professional.