Arizona House votes to overturn 1864 abortion ban, paving way to leave 15-week limit in place

Originally Published: 24 APR 24 10:58 ET
Updated: 24 APR 24 19:36 ET

(CNN) — The Arizona House of Representatives voted Wednesday to overturn the state’s 160-year-old abortion ban, setting the stage for a repeal that would leave the state’s 15-week restriction on the procedure in place.

The vote comes after two failed attempts by lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state House to bring the bill to the floor last week, as Democrats sought to strike down the ban after the state Supreme Court revived it earlier this month.

Three Republicans voted with all 29 Democrats Wednesday to advance the legislation. The state Senate is expected to pass the repeal measure in early May. And Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs is expected to sign the bill if lawmakers advance it to her desk.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Athena Salman, the executive director of Arizona campaigns for Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In its April 9 ruling, the Arizona Supreme Court said that the state must adhere to the 1864 law that bars all abortions except in cases when “necessary” to save a pregnant woman’s life. The law also carries a prison sentence of two to five years for abortion providers.

Wednesday’s vote is a boon to reproductive rights advocates and some Republican candidates, including former President Donald Trump, who have tried to distance themselves from the court ruling.

Within the Arizona House, however, the repeal measure drew angry remarks from several Republicans.

“I am disgusted today,” state Rep. Rachel Jones said. “Life is one of the tenants of our Republican platform. To see people go back on that value is egregious to me.”

Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma, who said he opposes all abortions except to save a pregnant woman’s life, said lawmakers had rushed into repealing the ban.

State Rep. Matt Gress, one of the Republicans who voted with Democrats, said the ban – which was first introduced when Arizona was still a US territory – didn’t reflect the values of most Arizona voters. Repealing it should have been a simple proposition, he said.

“I think it was more difficult than it needed to be,” Gress told CNN.

As the session ended, state House leadership removed Gress from the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, a move that was seen as punishment for bucking the party. Gress said it was “unfortunate and potentially unprecedented,” but he didn’t regret his vote.

“I campaigned against the territorial ban and made it very clear to my voters that I don’t support it,” said Gress, who represents a Phoenix-area district.

If a repeal vote fails in the state Senate, the 1864 law could take effect as early as June 8, making Arizona one of more than a dozen states that bans abortion at virtually all stages of pregnancy with few exceptions.

If it succeeds, Arizona’s 15-week restriction on abortions will continue to be state law. However, officials warned that the territorial ban could be briefly enforceable because nonemergency bills passed in Arizona don’t take effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

In neighboring California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom praised a state bill that would allow Arizona medical professionals to perform abortions for Arizona patients in California through the end of the year, arguing that it could help Arizonans even if the 1864 ban is repealed.

“With its urgency clause, SB 233 would fill a critical gap for care during a meaningful period of time before an Arizona repeal could be implemented,” a news release from the governor’s office said. “Swift action helps combat the confusion and chilling effect this back-and-forth creates.”

The Civil War-era abortion ban, which dates to before statehood, was codified in 1901. It remained in effect until 1973, when it was blocked by a court injunction after Roe v. Wade created a federal constitutional right to an abortion.

In March 2022, months before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law the state’s 15-week ban, which has no exceptions for rape or incest. That legislation stated explicitly that it did not overrule the 1864 law.

Democrats have made clear that they still plan to emphasize abortion policy heading into the general election. Arizona Republicans hold one-seat majorities in the state House and Senate, and the state will be a US Senate and presidential battleground this fall.

Sam Paisley, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to statehouse seats, called Wednesday’s vote a “clear victory for Arizona House Democrats” but pointed out that the 15-week restriction would still exist after a repeal.

“The only way to protect reproductive freedoms is to elect Democrats to the legislature to repeal this (15-week) ban too,” Paisley said in a statement.

Abortion rights advocates are currently working to place a constitutional amendment proposal on the state’s November ballot that would protect abortion access up to fetal viability, which doctors believe is around 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Arizona for Abortion Access, the group backing the amendment, has gathered more than 500,000 signatures. Advocates must submit 384,000 valid signatures by July 3 to make the general election ballot.

Prior to the Arizona House vote, the chamber’s rules committee voted along party lines to approve the late introduction of three House resolutions, largely believed to be Republican-backed ballot measures designed to compete with the abortion rights amendment.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Taylor Romine contributed to this report.

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