House votes to repeal near-total abortion ban; bill still needs Senate OK

(Video by Lauren Bly/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Arizona House voted Wednesday to repeal the state’s near-total ban on abortion, with three Republicans joining all Democrats to reverse the law despite emotional rhetoric from anti-abortion lawmakers.

The 32-28 vote came just two weeks after the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated the 1864 law that criminalizes abortion except to save the life of the mother, and it was the third try by Democrats to reverse that ruling.

The measure still needs Senate approval before it goes to the governor, who has said she would sign it.

Even though it took weeks, House Republicans called the vote rushed and said the 1864 law should be allowed to stand.

“While a few tweaks to the pre-Roe law may be in order to provide some clarity on miscarriages and an additional exception for rape, along with the current exception to save the life of the mother, a complete repeal is a betrayal of everything Arizona stands for and has always stood for,” said Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa.

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But GOP members who voted for repeal called it a preventive action, saying they feared that leaving the law on the books would spur voters to approve “unlimited abortions” when they vote on an abortion initiative this fall. Republican Reps. Matt Gress of Phoenix, Tim Dunn of Yuma and Justin Wilmeth of Phoenix voted for repeal.

In statements released after the vote, Gress and Dunn said they are still anti-abortion but that the 1864 law is “unworkable.”

“Should the pre-Roe law remain in effect, I firmly believe more lives will be lost over time,” Dunn’s statement said. “The public backlash would result in codifying disturbing and unlimited abortions in the Arizona Constitution, which is something that I cannot allow to happen.”

Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson, in January introduced the bill to repeal the then-dormant 1864 law, but her bill never got a hearing. After the Supreme Court reinstated the territorial era law on April 9, however, lawmakers moved to bring Stahl Hamilton’s bill directly to the House floor for a vote – a motion that was blocked for the past two weeks by Republicans.

Gress and Dunn crossed the aisle Wednesday, allowing for the vote, and Wilmeth joined them for final passage.

Stahl Hamilton became emotional while speaking to reporters after the vote.

“We know that a greater percentage of the people of Arizona want this law to repeal so that folks can get the care that they deserve,” she said.

The Senate last week introduce a mirror repeal measure after Republican Sens. T.J. Shope of Coolidge and Shawnna Bolick of Phoenix voted with Democrats to suspend the rules and allow for the late introduction of a bill. That bill cannot come up for a vote until next week as it first needs to be read three times on the floor under the state constitution.

But Rep. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, said Wednesday he now expects the Senate to swap out its bill for the House version, which could allow for a vote next week.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2022 that abortion rights are a state decision, Arizona has become a major battleground: The National Women’s March, above, was held in Phoenix in January. (Photo by Marnie Jordan/Cronkite News)

If the repeal passes the Senate and is signed by Gov. Katie Hobbs, it still would not go into effect until 91 days after the Legislature adjourns. That could be after the 1864 law takes effect, but Attorney General Kris Mayes has said she will not enforce the law and will not let county attorneys do so either. So far, no one has tried to bring a case under the territorial ban.

Both Mayes and Hobbs released statements celebrating the House vote and saying there’s still more to be done to protect abortion in the state.

“I encourage every Arizonan to make their voice heard at the ballot box this November as Arizonans decide on enshrining reproductive freedoms in our state’s constitution,” Hobbs said in her statement.

If the ban is repealed, abortions would be allowed in Arizona up to 15 weeks of pregnancy, under a law passed in 2022. The proposed ballot initiative would allow abortion up to fetal viability, which considered to be about 24 weeks, with exceptions after that for the health of the mother.

But Republicans may not be done fighting.

Before Wednesday’s vote, the House Rules Committee gave GOP leadership permission for late introduction of bills. Republicans last week indicated that they might use a ballot referral to offer an anti-abortion alternative in November to counter the Arizona Abortion Access Act.

House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Glendale, said in a statement Wednesday that he was “disappointed” by the vote and he admonished Democrats for rushing the bill through the legislative process.

“It would have been prudent and responsible to allow the courts to decide the constitutionality of the pre-Roe law,” Toma’s statement said. “Instead, we are rushing to judgment for reasons I simply cannot understand.”

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.