ARIZONA

Gov. Doug Ducey signs bill outlawing abortions in Arizona after 15 weeks

Counterprotesters hold signs as abortion-rights activists gather at a rally to protest abortion bans at Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix on May 21, 2019.
Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday signed a bill banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy in almost every circumstance, a contingency plan to limit the procedure as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on what could be a precedent-altering case.

In signing the bill, Ducey continues an unbroken record enacting every abortion restriction that has landed on his desk in his eight years in office. 

“In Arizona, we know there is immeasurable value in every life — including preborn life,” the Republican and Catholic governor wrote in a letter announcing the bill signing. “I believe it is each state's responsibility to protect them.”

Republican lawmakers passed the bill through the Legislature without the support of any Democrats, who raised concerns the prohibition does not include any exemptions for victims of rape or incest, among other objections.

Bill sponsor Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said the bill protects from "the horrors of abortion."

"We won't stop fighting until every preborn child is protected, but this is a step in the right direction," Barto said in a statement.

Arizona's latest abortion law includes limited exceptions for medical emergencies, including life-threatening conditions and those that "create serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

Doctors who perform the procedure after 15 weeks would be subject to prosecution for a Class 6 felony, the lowest level of felony crime, and face revocation or suspension of their medical licenses. Women who obtain an abortion would be immune from prosecution.

Like most other bills, the provisions of the abortion ban go into effect 90 days after the end of the Arizona legislative session, which is likely months away. The law would prevent hundreds of people from obtaining an abortion in the state each year.

In 2020, 636 women obtained abortions in Arizona after 15 weeks of pregnancy, according to state Department of Health Services records. Over 12,500 women sought abortions prior to 15 weeks, the records show.

Bill part of anti-abortion strategy

The vetting in the Arizona Legislature largely followed well-worn arguments in the abortion debate. Conservatives levied emotional arguments about a fetus' development and the state's duty to protect life. Meanwhile critics said the ban would further existing racial disparities in health care access and amounted to a government intrusion into personal medical decisions.

At 15 weeks of development, roughly two weeks into the second trimester, a fetus cannot survive outside the womb. 

The 15-week ban was part of Arizona Republicans' strategy to chip away at abortion access with a pivotal case in the hands of the nation's highest court. The court, with its three conservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump, could upend precedent that guaranteed a right to an abortion over the past nearly 50 years.

Before the court is a Mississippi case that bans abortions after 15 weeks. Arizona's bill was modeled after that legislation, a strategy proponents say will mean it can withstand a legal challenge, though lawsuits are still likely.

At least three other states have introduced similar legislation this year, but Arizona became the first of those to put the ban into law. 

“Gov. Doug Ducey now has the shameful distinction of signing the nation’s first 15-week ban on abortion into law this legislative session," NARAL Pro-Choice America Southwest Regional Director Caroline Mello Roberson said in a statement.

She warned the case before the nation's highest court that could overturn Roe v. Wade would "open the floodgates to a barrage of dangerous legislation that gives politicians more power and control over our lives."

Abortion critics celebrated the bill signing, with stalwart opponent Cathi Herrod of the conservative Center for Arizona Policy calling it a move "in line with science showing the humanity of the unborn." 

"Today’s victory also protects women who will be spared the emotional and physical harms of abortion," she said.

The politics of the abortion debate

Arizona already has some of the toughest abortion laws in the country, requiring counseling, an ultrasound and a 24-hour waiting period before a person can obtain the procedure. 

And though Ducey has previously said he supported exceptions for victims of rape and incest, he was unbothered that the latest bill does not include that language. The governor clarified Wednesday that he said those exceptions should be allowed if there is a complete ban on "availability" of the procedure, as some states have tried to enact.

The anti-abortion governor said last year that the U.S. Supreme Court made a mistake in its landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the case that established abortion rights, and that decisions about the procedure should be up to states.

Also last year, Ducey signed one of the most sweeping abortion measures of his two terms. The law banned abortions sought because of genetic abnormalities and gave fetuses civil rights. That law remains partially tied up in court challenges.

While abortion is always politically divisive, this year's ban after 15 weeks comes just months before an election that could reshape leadership in the Grand Canyon State and in the Legislature, where Republicans hold just single-seat majorities.

Candidates jumped Wednesday to tie to the governor's action to their causes, and advocacy groups swore to make Ducey's decision an issue on Election Day.

GOP candidate for governor and former Congressman Matt Salmon issued a statement commending Ducey's decision on the bill that will "save countless lives, guide the conscience of parents-to-be, and empower the formation of healthy, happy families across Arizona."

Meanwhile Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs, who is currently the secretary of state, blasted the "misogynistic law (that) clarifies the very real and dangerous consequences of electing leaders who are willing to throw away our rights and set us back a generation.”

The Arizona Democratic Party and several abortion rights advocacy groups issued statements looking ahead to November.

“Throughout this process, we have seen the champions of our rights step up to the fight," said Brittany Fonteno, president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. "We’ll remind voters this election season who was fighting for sexual and reproductive freedom for all Arizonans.”

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

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