Last week, Governor Doug Ducey signed a sweeping anti-abortion bill into law that would, among other new restrictions, threaten doctors with jail time for performing certain abortions. Physicians and staff in the medical community are now grappling with what consequences they could face for providing abortion services.
The legislation, which is officially titled Senate Bill 1457, would make performing an abortion on a fetus with a "genetic abnormality" a Class 6 felony, a criminal violation that garners a minimum six-month prison sentence. The bill contains a host of other provisions that alarms pro-choice advocates, such as a ban on delivering abortion bills by mail, barring public educational institutions from offering abortion services, and giving fetuses the same rights as children and adults.
While the bill won't take effect for 90 days after the end of this year's legislative session, (which could be sometime this month), it's still making waves in the medical community. Attorneys are poring over the legislation to see how abortion providers will have to change their operations. Some doctors are waiting for the seemingly inevitable lawsuit that could stop the bill from becoming active immediately while litigation proceeds in the courts.
All of this does not mean, however, that there hasn't been a chilling effect. Some physicians have had to calm anxious staffers at abortion clinics who are afraid about potential criminal liability.
"Staff are concerned," said Dr. DeShawn Taylor, owner of Desert Star Family Planning in Phoenix, a clinic that offers abortion services. "I actually had to have a conversation with a staff member who was ready to quit. She was like, 'I'm not going to go to jail for doing this job.'"
"There’s a very real concern about being able to legally operate with all of the restrictions that are included in this bill, and it’s very difficult to understand, completely, the full scope and impact of what’s in there," she said. "The personhood portion of it is a backdoor abortion ban. Because, if we are affording rights of personhood to embryos, then, I don’t see how we’re supposed to provide an abortion."
Dr. Kisti Fuller, an obstetrician with Phoenix Perinatal Associates who works with women dealing with "high-risk" pregnancies, said that the bill, once it becomes active, will directly impact her work. While her practice doesn't perform abortions directly, they do make referrals and discuss options, including abortions, with patients.
"Per the law, I can't even refer them [for an abortion.] I can't discuss it as an option, even though I'm not performing the termination. I'm now breaking the law because I'm talking about it."
"A lawyer for our company ... is going to have to outline for us exactly what we can do or say, which seems kind of ridiculous," Fuller added. "I feel like I'm being censored as a physician. To me, it seems like malpractice that I cant give the patient all the options for their care because it’s illegal in the state of Arizona. It just blows my mind."
Murphy Bannerman, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, said that the organization's clinics in Arizona are still operating normally. For the time being, the only part of their operations that the organization will definitely change once the bill goes into effect is asking patients if abortions are being sought to due a disability.
Ducey signed the bill on April 27 despite fierce criticism from pro-choice advocates, who argued that it is unconstitutional and dangerous. Critics say the sweeping bill is merely an effort by the Republican lawmakers who backed it to attract lawsuits, get a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and potentially overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that codified a woman's right to get an abortion.
"A lot of stuff in this bill is pretty crazy," said Gabrielle Goodrick, medical director at Camelback Family Planning. "It’s all politics. It has nothing to do with protecting disabled people, it has nothing to do with protecting women, nothing at all. It’s just Cathi Herrod's rhetoric and lies."
When asked how her patients are responding to the news that the bill was signed by the governor, Goodrick said that women who are seeking abortions are "frightened" and "panicked" — especially after the bill has been in the news for some time. Patients who are poor or are women of color are going to be hit hardest by the bill's further criminalization of abortion, the bill's critics warn.
"When I have patients with genetic abnormalities that are facing these decisions, they’re going to have to go out of state [for abortions] or keep their mouths closed," she said. "Our north Scottsdale patients are as annoyed as anyone. It’s difficult for them but it’s more difficult for a woman who is poor, who is homeless, who is facing health issues."
Abortion providers are looking to the Arizona Department of Health Services to provide specific guidelines on how medical professionals can adhere to the law. However, Steve Elliot, a spokesperson for the agency, wrote in an email that the legislation prevents the agency from crafting rules for one year. Once the bill becomes law after 90 days the agency will request an exception to the one-year moratorium so it can begin the rule-making process. He did not provide a timeline or details on which portions of the bill required specific guidelines from state health officials.
Pro-choice advocates and abortion providers are banking on lawsuits getting filed that seek to halt the law's implementation with a court-ordered injunction. However, it's unclear who will launch the litigation or when any complaints will get filed in court.
Bannerman said that Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona is "discussing" legal action but that no final decisions have been made. Analise Ortiz, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, referred Phoenix New Times to a statement criticizing Ducey's signature of the legislation.
"We’re definitely hoping for litigation to happen before the 90-day period," said Eloisa Lopez, executive director of Pro Choice Arizona and the Abortion Fund of Arizona.