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Hobbs has promised abortion action starting day one, but she'll likely face challenges

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer, the future of abortion access in Arizona has been unclear. Democrat Katie Hobbs has promised to push for abortion rights when she’s sworn in as governor in January. But in a deeply divided political climate, will Hobbs be able to make good on her promises? 

A law dating back to the 1860s bans abortions in Arizona, with exceptions only to save a mother’s life. It makes performing an abortion a felony punishable by two to five years in prison. And that law has never been repealed. 

It’s not being enforced right now, while it faces challenges in the state’s court system. But it was  briefly in effect this fall, temporarily bringing abortions in the state to a halt. And Hobbs made it a central focus of her gubernatorial campaign. 

“As Arizona’s governor, I will do everything in my power and use every tool at my disposal to restore abortion rights in Arizona,” Hobbs said at a press conference a day after the near-total abortion ban temporarily went back into effect. “On day one, I’ll call a special session of the state legislature to overturn this Draconian law.” 

Now, Hobbs has been elected and day one is drawing near. 

But Cathi Herrod, a longtime abortion rights opponent and CEO of the group Center for Arizona Policy, thinks Hobbs’ plan for a special session would be dead on arrival. 

“All 31 House Republicans, all 16 Senate Republicans have professed a pro-life position,” Herrod told KJZZ News. “I do not believe that Governor-elect Hobbs will have the votes to do what she wants to do on abortion.” 

One Republican lawmaker, state Rep. Lupe Diaz, has already  written an op-ed declaring his opposition to repealing the abortion ban if Hobbs calls a special session. 

Still, it would be a bad idea for Hobbs to reverse course on her plan, said Kevin DeMenna, senior advisor with DeMenna Public Affairs. 

“Promises that are made need to become promises that are kept,” DeMenna said. 

But DeMenna, who has worked as a political strategist in Arizona for more than 40 years, also doubts Hobbs’ special session would be successful. 

“Expecting that to translate into new law, reversing this issue, that’s unlikely,” DeMenna said. 

DeMenna said abortion has become a cornerstone cultural issue for Democrats and Republicans. He doesn’t see a lot of room for compromise on this issue, and he said that’s key in special sessions. 

“The typical approach [for special sessions] is in and out in a day or two or three, but it’s built around a consensus, a united opinion, and this issue really doesn’t qualify on that level,” DeMenna said. 

But Hobbs thinks there is consensus on the issue, at least among Arizona voters. 

Polling shows nearly 90% of Arizonans want abortions to remain legal in the state, at least in some circumstances. Hobbs  told KJZZ’s The Show that message should resonate, even in a divided statehouse. 

“If folks want to be representative to the people that they’re elected to serve, they would consider some sort of way to do that that would reflect the will of the majority of voters,” Hobbs said.

Even if Hobbs can’t convince conservative-majority lawmakers to repeal Arizona’s century-old abortion ban, abortion rights advocates still see her election as a critical  shift in their favor

“The power of the veto pen cannot be overstated,” said Brittany Fonteno, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. 

Outgoing governor, Republican Doug Ducey signed multiple pieces of legislation restricting abortion during his time in office. Fonteno notes Hobbs has promised to block any potential bills that would limit reproductive rights. 

“That’s going to go a long way with making sure that Arizonans and their health care providers are the ones making these decisions,” Fonteno said.  

But Herrod doesn’t think lawmakers will take up much abortion legislation for the time being. She expects they’ll wait to see what the state’s courts say as judges continue to weigh Arizona’s existing laws. The  Arizona Court of Appeals is currently considering whether the nineteenth century abortion ban law can take effect, or if the state should follow a 2022 law allowing abortions up to 15 weeks’ gestation. But the Court of Appeals likely won’t have the final say. 

“Whatever that decision may be, it’s likely to go to the Arizona Supreme Court,” Herrod said. “I anticipate several months of ongoing litigation in the courts over Arizona abortion law.”

And if lawmakers or the courts don’t settle the issue of abortion access in Arizona, DeMenna points out there’s yet another way Arizona could end up with new laws. 

“When circumstances like this present themselves to Arizona interests, they always seem to turn to the initiative and referenda route,” DeMenna said. 

He said he expects to see abortion access appear in some way or another on 2024 ballots, which could leave the issue up to voters. 

After this year’s elections, where Hobbs and other democrats performed better than expected in Arizona, Fonteno is optimistic voters prioritize abortion rights. 

“We have a pretty tough environment in our country right now with inflation, the economy,” Fonteno said. “So the fact that people came out and said that they wanted to support the party that would be pro-reproductive freedom says a lot about what’s important to people and what’s at the top of their minds.” 

DeMenna said it’s hard to predict how this issue will play out under the Hobbs administration. Arizona hasn’t had a Democratic governor in more than a decade. But lawmakers haven’t had the option to make major restrictions to abortion access since Roe v. Wade was decided 50 years ago. 

“I’d like to prognosticate a little more, but the data isn’t there, the history isn’t there,” DeMenna said. “It’s all new players and a blank slate.” 

Hobbs’ goals around abortion laws may be clear, DeMenna said, but she’ll be facing a set of circumstances no Arizona governor has faced before.

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Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent. She has produced work for NPR, New England Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, PRI's The World, Washington Post, Reuters and more.She has a master’s degree in radio journalism from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.She lives in central Phoenix with her husband, two daughters, and ill-behaved cat and dog. Her side-passions include photography, crosswords and hot sauce.