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Arizonans for and against abortion rights say fight is not over after Senate repeals near-total ban

A law from 1864 that criminalizes performing an abortion unless it’s to save a mother’s life will soon be repealed in Arizona. The state Supreme Court recently ruled Arizona should enforce that old law. But the  state Senate Wednesday narrowly voted to throw it out, and Gov. Katie Hobbs has promised to sign their bill. But Arizonans for and against abortion rights both say their fights are not over. 

When Republican state Sen. Shawnna Bolick announced she’d side with Democrats and cast the deciding vote to repeal the state’s near-total abortion ban from the Civil War era, some Arizonans watching the live stream of the proceedings in an overflow room at the state Capitol groaned in frustration. Others cheered in relief.

Outside the Capitol, Stephanie McKenzie had arrived early in the morning holding a sign bearing a verse from the Bible. She said she was disappointed by Republicans who had voted with Democrats for the repeal. She said it felt like they were caving to pressure from the public.

"There are times when it comes to crimes against humanity when we have to do what’s right, and we have go with what’s morally right, not with what’s legal at the time,” McKenzie told KJZZ News. 

The repeal won’t apply until 90 days after the end of the legislative session, which could fall in August or September. That leaves a  possibility that the 1864 ban could still be temporarily enforced starting this summer.

But once the ban is officially repealed, Arizona will revert back to a law it’s been following since 2022, which allows abortion through the 15th week of a pregnancy.

McKenzie said she isn’t satisfied with the 15-week limit. She said she had ended a pregnancy when she was younger and had come to deeply regret it. She still hopes to see abortion outlawed in Arizona. 

“All human beings are precious and valuable to God, and if we say we believe that, we have to be consistent," McKenzie said. 

Jacob Warner is an attorney with the conservative legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom. He argued in favor of the 1864 abortion ban during the  Arizona Supreme Court case that ultimately upheld that law. Like McKenzie, he said he's also hopeful Arizona Republican lawmakers will continue working toward abortion restrictions.

“Whether that is creating new legislation or considering ballot initiatives, lawmakers here in Arizona and elsewhere should do everything they can to protect unborn children," Warner said. 

But Warner said that, following this week’s repeal vote, the next major focus for abortion opponents in Arizona is the upcoming election.

“It starts even in November as this ballot initiative in Arizona is on the table," Warner said. "It goes way too far.” 

The  proposed ballot initiative that worries Warner is the Arizona for Abortion Access Act. It would amend the state constitution to expand abortion access beyond 15 weeks, to the point of fetal viability, which is about 24 weeks. It would also allow additional exceptions beyond that when health risks are involved.

When the state Supreme Court reinstated the 1860s abortion law last month, organizers of the Arizona for Abortion Access campaign said donations and website traffic surged. 

“I do think that people really feel that this is a right that’s being taken away from them," Cheryl Bruce, the group’s campaign manager told KJZZ News. 

But voters now face a more complicated decision between 15-week and 24-week laws, rather than the stark choice between outlawing most abortions, or allowing broad access to the procedure.

Even so, Bruce said momentum is still on the campaign's side.

“Even before the [state Supreme Court] decision, our campaign announced that we had collected more than 500,000 signatures across the state, so there already was enthusiasm for this measure,” Bruce said. 

Organizers already have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but plan to keep circulating their petition until the July 3 deadline.

Standing among pro-choice demonstrators at the Capitol on Wednesday, holding a pink sign in support of Planned Parenthood, Laura said she hopes the Arizona for Abortion Access campaign is successful and that voters approve the measure this fall. She asked that we not use her last name because she feared retaliation at work for taking part in a political demonstration. 

“Nobody ever wants to get an abortion, but to take that away is heartbreaking,” Laura said. 

She got emotional speaking about frightening medical complications that came up when she was pregnant with her daughter.

“To imagine any woman being in that same position and not having a choice, it’s unacceptable, it’s unkind, and we’re better than that in 2024," Laura said. 

Laura has lived in Arizona her whole life, but she said all of the back-and-forth around abortion restrictions here has her seriously thinking about leaving to raise her three kids somewhere else. She said for her, everything is riding on what happens in November.

More stories from KJZZ

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.