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AZ House Judiciary Committee passes bill to make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy after 15 weeks

Rep. Walt Blackman
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Rep. Walt Blackman

Arizona moved a step closer Wednesday to enacting new abortion restrictions amid charges by one supporter that the laws are "close to genocide" for Black children.

On a 6-4 vote, with only Republicans in favor, the House Judiciary Committee approved SB 1164. It seeks to make it a felony, with a possible one-year prison term, for a doctor to terminate a pregnancy after 15 weeks.

The measure, which already passed the Senate — also on a party-line vote — now needs approval of the full Republican-controlled House.

Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, already has expressed support for imposing new restrictions on abortions. And he said the historic 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade that legalized the practice was a "mistake" that the justices need to correct.

It is that "correction" that abortion foes are presuming will occur, with the justices set to rule by June on the legality of Mississippi law banning abortions at 15 weeks with wording that is virtually identical to SB 1064. Barto's measure seeks to put that on the books here in Arizona in anticipation the court will uphold that Mississippi law.

Rep. Walt Blackman (R-Snowflake) said if it were up to him all abortions would be illegal. Last year he even proposed legislation that that if Arizona is allowed to do that even the woman undergoing the procedure could be prosecuted.

His bill did not get a hearing. And he did not reintroduce it this year.

But Blackman, who chairs the committee and is Black, made his feelings about abortion clear on Wednesday, saying the Black community is "under attack."

"There are more Black babies that are aborted than born," he said, putting the figure of terminated pregnancies at 1,300 a day. And while Blackman said the population of the Black community has decreased, the 2020 report from the Census Bureau showed that while Black population growth has slowed, it is still increasing nationally.

"That's not a Republican or a Democrat or an independent issue," said Blackman who is running for Congress.

"That's a human rights issue," Blackman continued. "And it's close to genocide."

Sen. Nancy Barto (R-Phoenix) sponsor of the measure, said that Roe v. Wade opened the door to abortion at any time prior to birth. And she told committee members of public opposition to late-term abortions.

"Arizona can distance itself from abortion extremists by limiting abortion to 15 weeks," she said.

In Arizona, however, state law allows a women to terminate a pregnancy only until a fetus is considered viable, something that is now medically considered to occur sometime around the 22nd to 24th week of pregnancy. Barto said that's still too long.

"Babies at 15 weeks gestation already have fully formed noses, lips, eyelids and eyebrows," she said. "They suck their thumb and they feel pain."

That last point, however, has been disputed by various organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But Rep. Quang Nguyen (R-Prescott Valley) said that's irrelevant.

"Do we have to wait until a fetus feels pain so that we can justify not killing him or her?" he asked.

But much the debate at the committee centered on other issues.

Rep. Melody Hernandez (D-Tempe) pointed out that the measure contains no exception in cases of rape or incest. Barto said that was by design.

"All life deserves protection," she said. Anyway, Herrod said, that's the way the existing, albeit unenforceable, Arizona law is written.

The bill does contain an exception for a "medical emergency." But that only is in cases where it is necessary to avert the woman's death or when a delay "will create serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."

Hernandez, who is a paramedic, said that is far too narrow.

For example, she said pregnant women can develop preeclampsia which manifests itself with high blood pressure and signs of damage to other organs. And Hernandez, who had an abortion three years ago, said there are other types of emergencies that she believes should be exceptions to the ban, like a domestic violence situation where a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy as a way of protecting herself.

"What about the emergency of somebody suddenly losing their job and their health insurance," she said. "Maybe they're the only ones who can provide that income."

Barto, for her part, said she considers allowing women to have an abortion up to 15 weeks is itself a generous exception.

"If it were up to me, I think we would honor the life of a child born at conception," she said.

"It wouldn't be based on pain or other determinations," Barto said. "That's a separate human being apart from the mother and deserves protection."

Blackman said he sees it as a constitutional issue. He said that, at 15 weeks, any baby conceived by parents who are U.S. citizens falls under the same 14th Amendment equal protection rights

"This person, in the womb, is an American citizen and is afforded the same constitutional rights as the person carrying the baby for protections under the law," Blackman said.

Dr. Atsuko Koyama, who does pediatric emergency care as well as provides abortions, said the measure, if approved and allowed by the Supreme Court to take effect, will have a disproportionate impact. She called it "a ban on abortion for women who don't have the ability to travel out of state, take time off work, find child care, or access abortion care early in their pregnancy."

The first points refer to the fact that, regardless of what the Supreme Court does, several other states already have taken action to protect abortion rights. And Arizona cannot preclude its residents from going elsewhere for medical care that is legal there.

"Forcing anyone, but especially girls and teens, to continue their pregnancy is inhumane and unconscionable," Koyama said.

But Rachel Van Hoesen told lawmakers she had an abortion as a minor

"I was misinformed," she said. "I represent the innumerable women who have suffered the traumatic effects of abortion and are later coming to grips with the reality of their self-protective decision and how this devastated their lives, leaving them without their child."

Hernandez, however, said she sees this as a "human rights issue."

"It's about providing protection and pathways for all people to be able to decide what it looks like for them and whether or not that includes starting a family," she said.