Arizona Capitol

Republican Lawmakers Are Making a Big Push to Criminalize Abortions

The Arizona State Capitol.
The Arizona State Capitol. Gage Skidmore
Some extreme anti-abortion bills have stalled out in the Arizona Legislature, but Republican lawmakers are steadily advancing more legislation that activists say undermine reproductive healthcare in the state.

Back in January, State Representative Walt Blackman and a group of other Republicans made headlines for the  punitive measures in House Bill 2650, which would force prosecutors to file homicide charges against women who get abortions and their doctors. It garnered significant criticism from abortion rights advocates as well as conservatives including Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. The bill has yet to be assigned to a committee — an indication that it isn't going anywhere.

But in the Senate, Republican lawmakers have been churning out other bills that target abortion. Similar to Blackman's bill, some of them seek to criminalize abortion providers.

"It’s unbelievable in any given year, especially now that we’re still in this pandemic, that this is what they choose to spend taxpayer money on," said Democratic state Representative Athena Salman. "The ones that are most egregious that could lead to potential boycotts of Arizona like it has in other states are the measures that are in the Senate right now."

On February 24, the Senate passed SB 1254, which would force state health officials to ban organizations that "counsel, refer, perform, induce, prescribe or provide abortions" from an online list of pregnancy services available for women.

Earlier today, the Senate also passed one of the more closely watched bills, SB 1457. The sweeping legislation would give fetuses the same rights as children and adults, ban public agencies from contracting with abortion providers or affiliates, and prohibit public-education institutions from providing referrals for abortions or pro-abortion counseling. The bill would also criminalize the performance of abortions based on a "genetic abnormality of the child" as a class 3 felony.

"It definitely is another step to restrict abortion access in Arizona even further," said Murphy Bannerman, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, in reference to SB 1457. "We already have 30 laws on the books that make abortion as difficult as possible to access and this is just adding even more barriers."

She added that the bill is "trying to outlaw abortion as much as possible."

In an emailed statement to Phoenix New Times, Senator Nancy Barto, the sponsor of SB 1457, defended the legislation and said that there is support for the bill.

"The provisions in SB 1457 are intended to protect women's health and protect the most vulnerable — it's not political to me," she wrote. "When addressing critics, I try to stay focused on the facts — not the politics of the abortion debate. The bill is Constitutional for instance — the genetic abnormality provision is law currently in four states."

Bannerman countered that the bill "does nothing" to provide financial support to families who have children with disabilities and that it could force women to continue pregnancies with nonviable fetuses.

"This creates a situation where women might have to carry a fetus that doctors know will not survive when it’s born," she said. "This is a decision that should be left up to the family and the doctor and not up to the government."

In a statement released after the Senate passed the bill, Caroline Mello Roberson, the southwest regional director for the abortion advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America, slammed the vote. She claimed that it is part of a larger effort by Republicans to get controversial abortion legislation before the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which deemed excessive restrictions on abortion to be unconstitutional.

"Republicans in the state Senate remain hell-bent on attacking reproductive freedom. And with SB 1457, anti-choice lawmakers have made it clear that their strategy is to attack abortion rights and access from every angle imaginable," she said. "These legislators are willing to do whatever it takes to advance their goals of gutting Roe v. Wade and pushing abortion care as far out of reach as possible — regardless of the damage inflicted on the lives, health, and well-being of Arizona women and families."

Cathi Herrod, the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative pro-life lobbying group, said that SB 1457 and SB 1254 are currently priorities for them.

"Arizona has a pro-life majority in the Arizona Senate and the Arizona House," she said. "The votes are there."

She might be right about the votes: Republicans still hold slim majorities in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate following November's election.

Even more anti-abortion bills are in the pipeline. Today, the Senate advanced SB 1362, sponsored by Senator Wendy Rogers, which expands the ability of healthcare institutions to refuse to provide abortions and contraception beyond religious objections. It also equates emergency contraception like Plan B to abortion.  Another bill from Rogers that has yet to get a floor vote, SB 1381, would make performing abortions based on the "disability of the child" or the "parent of the child" a class 2 felony.

Meanwhile, a pair of bills (HB 2404 and SB 1251) in the House and the Senate that would make $1.5 million in funding available to so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" have yet to clear floor votes in their respective chambers. Critics say the centers spread misinformation to pregnant women and pressure them into not having abortions.

Senator Barto defended crisis pregnancy centers in a statement to New Times, arguing that the bill does not provide "direct funding."

"The funding would be allocated to any nonprofit organization which applies and meets the criteria," she wrote. "The project would establish a statewide online platform geared to reach women seeking abortion and respond to their request for information and the services they might need to make a different choice."

State Representative Michelle Udall, the sponsor of the House version of the bill, did not respond to a request for comment.

Bannerman said the number of anti-abortion bills getting pushed this year is higher than normal for the right-leaning Legislature.

"In previous years they have introduced different bills, but this is a large amount that we really haven't seen in quite a while here," Bannerman said. "There’s a real push to criminalize those who are providing abortions or those who are seeking them."
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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