Republicans stall, but don’t kill, effort that would repeal 1864 abortion ban

Protesters from both sides of the abortion debate turned out at the Arizona Capitol where lawmakers debated whether to repeal the 1864 near-total ban on abortion that was revived last week after nearly 50 years on hold. (Photo by Martin Dreyfuss/Cronkite News)

An abortion-rights advocate squares off with anti-abortion protesters outside the Arizona House Wednesday. Despite the highly charged nature of the issue, protests were mostly well-mannered and peaceful at the Capitol. (Photo by Martin Dreyfuss/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Arizona Senate took tentative steps toward a repeal of the state’s 1864 abortion ban Wednesday, just hours after House Republicans blocked efforts to do so.

Senate Democrats, with the support of Republican Sens. T.J. Shope and Shawnna Bolick, were able to introduce a bill to repeal the territorial-era law that bans virtually all abortions, a law that was resurrected by the Arizona Supreme Court last week.

That ruling is currently on hold, but abortion-rights activists have been scrambling to stop the ban from taking effect. Attempts last week to overturn the law, just days after the court ruling, were blocked by Republicans in both the House and Senate.

House Republicans stalled a similar vote Wednesday with a series of procedural moves, angering House Democrats.

“There are so many people who are watching right now and watching what Arizona is doing,” said Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson. “The fact that we will not even entertain a motion to allow those who have been raped or pregnant by incest to be able to have an abortion is extremely, extremely disappointing.”

Shortly after their debates, both chambers adjourned until next Wednesday, meaning it will take another several weeks before the law could be repealed.

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Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, joined Shope, Bolick and Senate Democrats to stymie GOP efforts to table the bill, but ultimately did not vote for the motion to introduce the measure. But he said he does not see a point to delaying a vote with procedures like those used by House Republicans.

“I think we need to take care of this issue sooner than later and just delaying it by adjourning or postponing doesn’t make sense to me,” Bennett said. “There’s obviously two members of the caucus that I think will support the repeal and once we know that we need to move and get that done.”

It was a different scene in the House, where Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson, moved to call a vote on a bill to repeal the 1864 law, which she introduced at the beginning of this legislative session but which never got a hearing.

That was blocked by Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, who said Stahl Hamilton’s motion violated House rules. House Speaker Ben Toma agreed and the House voted 30-30 to uphold Toma’s decision, with Republican Rep. Matt Gress of Phoenix joining Democrats.

Toma argued on the floor Wednesday that there was no need to rush a vote on the bill. But Rep. Oscar De Los Santos, D-Phoenix, noted that Democrats have introduced the same bill in each of the last six legislative sessions, only to see it bottled up by Republican leadership.

Hernandez said Democrats were not asking for anything unusual, noting that members often suspend House rules to revive dead bills or get a bill through the chamber faster.

“If you want to talk about process, great, we are doing what many times has been done in this chamber in order to give people in Arizona, especially women, the right to be able to make their own decisions,” Hernandez said. “I’m still really disheartened that we’re even having this conversation about whether or not we should even have these conversations.”

Anti-abortion materials outside the Capitol, where activists gathered, along with abortion-rights advocates, while state lawmakers were inside debating proposals to repeal a nrear-total ban on abortions that was reinstated last week by the Arizona Supreme Court. (Photo by Martin Dreyfuss/Cronkite News)

Gress said he believes there are enough votes to repeal the 1864 ban, pointing to Republicans like Reps. David Cook and Tim Dunn who have expressed a willingness to repeal. Republicans would first have to defy Toma in order to allow the vote to occur, but Gress thinks that could happen given more time and conversations with those on the fence.

Stahl Hamilton said she understands that asking Republicans to go against party leadership is a “tall ask” but she still hopes a compromise can be reached.

“There’s been some good across-the-aisle conversations, but ultimately the trickiest piece is getting the bill on the board,” she said. “If we can get the bill on the board, I believe that we have the votes to pass it and move it along in the process.”

The attempts come one week after Gress and House Democrats tried to force a repeal vote, just one day after the Supreme Court revived the law, overriding a 2022 law allowing abortion up to 15 weeks of pregnancy. When Republicans moved instead for a recess, the chamber devolved into chaos, with Democrats chanting and shouting at GOP members as they left the House floor.

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A similar attempt in the Senate was shut down last week when Republicans moved to adjourn, ignoring an attempt by Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, to append the repeal language to another bill. Epstein and Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, filed an ethics complaint Monday against Shope and Senate President Warren Petersen for violating Senate rules by not acknowledging Epstein.

The House gallery was packed Wednesday after anti-abortion groups encouraged supporters to show up and fill seats. After beating back repeal efforts, GOP members turned to the gallery to applaud abortion opponents sitting there. Those groups support the abortion ban and say attempts to repeal it are “cowardly.”

“The best decision is to uphold the ban now,” said Daniel Statham, a member of End Abortion Now, an anti-abortion Christian group in Arizona.

Abortion-rights groups were also on hand for the session and held a news conference during the House recess saying they are still focused on passing an abortion-rights ballot measure in November. Scores showed up to rally outside the Capitol during Wednesday’s sessions.

“Regardless of what happens over there, our campaign is moving forward,” said Chris Love, a spokesperson for Arizona for Abortion Access.

“Before the Supreme Court made their announcement on Tuesday, we did announce that we had more than 500,000 Arizona voters sign in support of putting our initiative on the ballot. Arizona voters want to see this issue on the ballot, they don’t want to see whatever’s happening in there,” she said, referring to the House.

Reagan Priest Ray-gan Priest (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Reagan Priest expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Priest has also worked at The Copper Courier, The State Press, Cronkite News D.C., The Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS.

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.