Arizona Capitol

Jail Time for Arizona Abortion Doctors? Controversial Bill Is Advancing in the Legislature

Democrats and pro-choice advocates allege that testimony in opposition to SB 1457 was unfairly cut off.
Democrats and pro-choice advocates allege that testimony in opposition to SB 1457 was unfairly cut off. Screenshot via Arizona Capitol TV
During an emotionally charged meeting earlier this week, Republican Arizona lawmakers advanced a controversial bill that threatens doctors who perform abortions with jail time.

Critics of the bill allege that public comment was cut short to silence pro-abortion testimony.

The sweeping legislation, Senate Bill 1457, would make performing an abortion based on a "genetic abnormality" of an unborn child a Class 3 felony, which warrants a mandatory minimum sentence of 2.5 years in prison. The bill would also give fetuses the same rights as children and adults, bar public agencies from contracting with abortion providers, and ban public educational institutions from making referrals for abortions or providing pro-abortion counseling.

After SB 1457 cleared the Arizona Senate earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill out of committee with a party-line vote. It now goes to the Rules Committee, and, potentially, a floor vote if it advances further.

Critics argue that the legislation is an unnecessary and dangerous government overreach into reproductive healthcare that criminalizes abortion, interferes in medical education and healthcare funding, and is unconstitutional. They also allege that the legislation is merely a gambit by pro-life activists to draw lawsuits and get a case before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that cemented a woman's right to have an abortion.

During the committee meeting, only a handful of speakers both for and against the bill were allowed to provide testimony by the chair of the committee, Republican Representative Jacqueline Parker. She said during the meeting that she would cut off further public testimony "in the interest of time because we have so many people signed up."

The decision infuriated Democrats and abortion advocates.

Democratic Representative Melody Hernandez called the move "disturbing."

"We are looking at a bill that talks about a Class Three felony which is a mandatory minimum of two and a half years up to seven years yet this committee is inconvenienced by spending a couple hours talking about it," she said. "The rest of our stakeholders, whether they are for or against I'd love to hear both, we silenced them today. They did not have a voice in this committee."

Domingo DeGrazia, a Democratic lawmaker, told the committee that speakers in favor of the bill got a total of 31 minutes to speak, while critics only got 15.

"It definitely seemed very one-sided how the breakdown ended up playing out between her selecting some from those in support of the bill versus some of those in opposition to the bill," said Murphy Bannerman, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. "They only wanted one side to be heard during the debate."

Bannerman said that an attorney representing Planned Parenthood and women who had received abortions due to fetal anomalies were prevented from speaking when Parker cut off further testimony.

When asked for comment, Representative Parker referred New Times to a series of tweets that she posted in response to criticisms of her management of the hearing.

For instance, the Arizona House Democrats' official Twitter account called her conduct "autocratic" in a March 17 tweet. Parker responded by writing, "Wrong. There were 5 speakers for each side-for & against. Each got 90 secs + whatever committee questions, then we had to move on. No dems reached out with a preferred priority so I just went down the list. Pay attention & stop making up whatever facts fit your narrative!"

One speaker who is opposed to SB 1457 and was prevented from providing testimony, Kristin Williams, posted a recorded video of her statement on Twitter. She said that she chose to get an abortion to end a pregnancy due to "fetal anomalies" and health concerns stemming from a "history with previous high-risk pregnancies."

"I fear this bill will impede doctor-patient relationships and trust," she said. "Passing this bill will also hurt grieving families with fetal anomalies like ours by forcing them to carry a pregnancy as long as they can because of a narrative that just doesn’t exist."

Before the committee voted on the bill, health care industry and abortion advocates slammed the legislation as extreme and damaging.

"Criminalizing the doctor-patient relationship is where we have great concerns," said Jon Amores, director of government relations with the Arizona Medical Association. "If the purpose of this bill is truly to protect women and children, we suggest that that can never be achieved if you criminalize the doctor-patient relationship."

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, argued that the legislation is unconstitutional and could provide a legal basis to prosecute women who have abortions.

"Unquestionably, this statute is unconstitutional not only in the ways in which it challenges Roe v. Wade but in the extent to which it deprives women of equal rights, of recognition of their personhood," she said. "There is no way to add fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses to the community of people with full rights, privileges, and immunities without taking exactly those same things away from women."

Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, told the committee that the bill "represents a dangerous governmental intrusion into the practice of medicine."

"We stand in strong opposition to any legislation that would criminalize the practice of medicine," she said. "If enacted, Senate Bill 1457 would subject physicians who provide legitimate medical care to felony charges punishable by imprisonment. It’s an extreme and alarming overreach for the government to define and regulate the practice of medicine using criminal penalties."

The bill's sponsor, Republican Senator Nancy Barto, defended the legislation as protecting unborn children who have "genetic abnormalities."

"Senate Bill 1457 ensures that where there is a question, the law will be interpreted in favor of protecting innocent life," she said. "In Arizona we can and we should do better."

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a pro-life advocacy organization, argued that the bill passes legal muster.

"The intent is always to advocate for bills that are constitutional," she said. "The law already imposes a Class 3 felony for abortions that are due to race or sex of the unborn child."

Denise Burke, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative group, made a similar argument.

"The U.S. Supreme Court is zealous of vindicating the rights of people even potentially subjected to disability discrimination," she said. "Four states currently currently have enforceable bans on abortion performed on actual or perceived genetic abnormalities."

Arizona currently has a host of laws that restrict abortion access, such as requiring abortion patients to receive an ultrasound and undergo a 24-hour waiting period. Additionally, the state already has laws that criminalize both women who receive abortions and the doctors who provide them, though Roe v. Wade effectively invalidated them.

SB 1457 is one of many anti-abortion laws that have been introduced this year in the Arizona Legislature by Republican lawmakers. The most high-profile was a bill that mandated that prosecutors file homicide charges against women who get abortions and abortion doctors. While that bill has stalled out, other legislation that undermines abortion has made progress at the Capitol, aided by Republicans' current razor-thin majorities in both the Senate and the House.

To Democrats, a broader legal strategy behind the flurry of bills seems obvious.

"This is another attempt in government to overreach on a decision that was made over 50 years ago by the Supreme Court in which every woman is afforded the right to safe and professional decisions on their reproductive healthcare rights," said Representative César Chávez prior to the committee vote. "I keep hearing that 'this is already in statute, this is already in statute.' Well, there is a lot in statute in the state of Arizona that should not be statute."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety