Attempt to repeal abortion ban fails as House devolves into raucous shouting

Emotions ran high inside the Arizona House chamber Wednesday, when some lawmakers tried to force a vote on a long-stalled bill to repeal an 1864 law criminalizing virtually all abortions in the state. The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday said that ban should be enforced – and the attempt to repeal it was stalled. (File photo by Ellen O’Brien/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Arizona House blocked two efforts to overturn a near-total ban on abortion Wednesday, one day after the 19th-century law was reinstated by the state Supreme Court.

The procedural moves to block the repeal sparked an outburst by angry Democrats, who shouted down the lawmakers who called for a recess. That was followed by a more-civil, but no more successful second try later in the day before the House adjourned for a week.

Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson, said “the eyes of the world watching the state of Arizona” and she urged her colleagues to stay in session and vote to reverse the Supreme Court’s “extreme” ruling.

“So today we need to stay in this chamber. We need to find a path forward. And we need to do the job we are elected to do and not play games and not discount the lives that are at stake,” Stahl Hamilton said, adding that “people will die” if the law is not repealed.

She was referring to an 1864 law, passed when Arizona was still a territory, that makes it a felony to perform an abortion, except when done to save the life of the mother.

It was never taken off the books but had been on hold since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a national right to an abortion in its Roe v. Wade decision. The court in 2022 reversed Roe, saying regulation of abortion should be left to the states.

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That left two laws on the books in Arizona where, shortly before Roe was overturned, lawmakers passed a law allowing abortions up to 15 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion opponents went to court to have the 19th century ban declared the law of the land, and the Arizona Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday that it is.

Stahl Hamilton had introduced a bill in January to repeal the 1864 law, but that bill never got a hearing. After the court on Tuesday resurrected the old law, House members tried to force a repeal vote on the floor.

The first attempt came from Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, who said in a social media post Wednesday that legislative leaders should “immediately bring to the floor a measure that will repeal the territorial ban, restore modern-day protections for Arizona women, protect new life and make the 15-week statute the law of the land.”

Instead, the House voted to take a recess. That brought an angry outburst from House Democrats, who can be seen in social media videos chanting “save women’s lives,” “shame” and “blood’s on your hands” as lawmakers walked off the floor.

At one point, the attacks extended to Gress as well, with Democratic Reps. Oscar de los Santos of Laveen and Analise Ortiz of Phoenix shouting that Gress is “a liar … who has been completely untruthful” about his stance on abortion. Gress last year sponsored a handful of bills relating to pregnant women that critics called thinly veiled, backdoor attempts to grant personhood to a fetus, for example.

House Speaker Ben Toma chided Democrats for the outburst, saying in a prepared statement that they are “so eager to enshrine in our state constitution a right to kill unborn children up until birth with virtually no restrictions,” referring to a proposed ballot initiative this fall on abortion rights.

“That’s not healthcare or reproductive care. The Democrats’ approach to the issue is unconscionable, it’s extreme, and Arizonans do not agree with such an unrestricted right to abortion,” Toma’s statement said.

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After lawmakers returned from recess, Stahl Hamilton made the same motion to bring the repeal up for a vote, with the same outcome but with lawmakers voting to leave for a week instead of a short recess.

There was significantly less emotion for the second vote, but emotions continue to run high on the court’s ruling, which is on hold – for the next two weeks or the next two months, depending on who is talking.

In a joint statement after the court decision was handed down Tuesday, Toma and Senate President Warren Petersen said it is “important to note there is at least a 60-day waiting period before any change in the existing law occurs.”

“During this time we will be closely reviewing the court’s ruling, talking to our members, and listening to our constituents to determine the best course of action for the legislature,” their statement said.

But Democrats continue to push for an immediate repeal.

Gov. Katie Hobbs called the House’s inaction Wednesday “unconscionable” and said the “extreme Republican majority … had the chance to do the right thing for their constituents, but they failed.”

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, said she was “disgusted by the actions of my peers.” Democrats, from the White House on down, have seized on the Arizona Supreme Court ruling for political advantage and Sundareshan, the co-chair of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, was no different.

“We are lucky to have Democrats who will do everything in their power to restore Roe protections for millions of Arizonans,” she said in a prepared statement from the party. “This is why we need to flip the legislature.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Martin Dreyfuss expects to graduate in December 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Dreyfuss is a published journalist and poet, with experience in social media, play-by-play, management and content creation. He began working at age 10, when he began building his work ethic and professional experience in restaurants, sales and esports organization management.