By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature have made restricting abortion a priority this year, and are likely to emulate a Mississippi law that the U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to uphold rather than a far more restrictive law in Texas.
Several legislative measures have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would make accessing abortion more difficult or criminalize abortion providers. Republican lawmakers in each chamber have sponsored copycat versions of the Texas Heartbeat Act, which bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a timeframe in which many women aren’t even aware they’re pregnant. Neither has been assigned to any committees, making it almost certain that they won’t advance in the legislature. Thursday was the deadline for legislative committees to hear bills in their chamber of origin.
Prospects are far better for Senate Bill 1164, which the Senate approved on a party-line vote on Tuesday. It criminalizes doctors performing abortions after 15 weeks unless there’s a medical emergency, and makes no exception for pregnancies from rape or incest. Sen. Nancy Barto, the bill’s sponsor, defended this by shifting attention to fetuses.
“The baby inside of a woman is a separate life and needs to be protected. All life is sacred,” said Barto, a Phoenix Republican.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, argued that the measure was unconstitutional under current federal law, but Barto pointed out that may no longer be the case in the near future, if Republican wishes are fulfilled.
Republican legislators in Mississippi in 2018 passed the Gestational Age Act, which SB1164 is modeled on, that also bans abortions past 15 weeks. After it was blocked by a federal district court, Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which many observers expect to uphold the ban.
“The Dobbs decision before the Supreme Court right now is probably going to overturn Roe — we’re hoping — but in any case, will probably make sure that the Mississippi law stands, and that will give us an opportunity in Arizona to protect more unborn lives,” Barto said, referring to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey places the standard at 24 weeks, making any bans before that time period unconstitutional and subject to litigation. The Mississippi act is currently awaiting a decision and if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the law, it could overturn the protections afforded by Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and effectively open the way for measures like SB1164 to pass unimpeded.
In Maricopa County, abortion providers are clustered in Phoenix, and there are only nine licensed clinics in the whole state for more than 3 million women. If bans are implemented, women seeking abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy will likely have to travel upwards of 246 miles to the nearest providers in California – if they can travel. Those who can’t afford it will be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, or resort to dangerous alternatives.
Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, is particularly outspoken about his support of anti-abortion legislation. Blackman has co-sponsored the fetal heartbeat copycat bill in the House, and on Feb. 1, his proclamation to welcome the start of Black History Month was made through the lens of that issue. He called the high rates of abortion in the Black community a tragedy, and asked for a moment of silence.
“(Abortion is) something that I’m very aggressively trying to fix in the black communities,” he said.
The Republican representatives present stood and bowed their heads, clapping at the moment’s conclusion. Rep. Reginald Bolding, the House Minority Leader, and Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez, D-Phoenix, remained seated.
Bolding wouldn’t comment on his decision not to stand, but did say he supported the right of women to make their own reproductive decisions.
“I believe women across this country are highly intelligent. They’re leading their families, they are educators, they are vice presidents,” said Bolding, who, along with Blackman, is one of two Black members in the legislature. “I don’t believe that the government should be playing a role specifically in telling women what they should be doing with their bodies.”
Quiñonez objected to the invocation of abortion as a political rallying cry.
“I believe in a woman’s fundamental right to choose and make the best decisions when it comes to their bodies. I do not believe the decision to have an abortion is made lightly, and therefore that decision should not be politicized,” he said in an email to the Arizona Mirror.
Quezada argued that the 15-week ban would be especially harmful to lower-income women. A survey of 30 facilities from 2004 through 2010 concluded that financial explanations were the most cited, at 40%.
“(SB1164) is going to have a devastatingly disproportionate impact on those in our community that are struggling financially the most. And these are the very people that I think we as a state should be trying to help, not hurt,” he said.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.