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AZ doctors can perform later-term abortions in emergencies, AG says

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes speaks about legal exceptions to the state's 15-week abortion law at her office in Phoenix on June 27, 2024.
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes speaks about legal exceptions to the state's 15-week abortion law at her office in Phoenix on June 27, 2024.

Arizona doctors can perform abortions later in pregnancy if their patient faces death or major bodily impairment, according to Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes. Mayes clarified the exceptions to Arizona law in an opinion released Thursday.

Arizona lawmakers in 2022 put a 15-week limit on abortions. Beyond 15 weeks, the law makes exceptions if the mother’s life is at risk.

But doctors were still unsure about when they could legally intervene.

“A lot of us were very concerned we were going to have to choose between the patient or being prosecuted,” said Phoenix emergency physician Dr. Dan Schnorr, speaking at a press conference Thursday alongside Mayes. “As physicians, we’re concerned that we’re at the bedside with the patient and later on somebody who maybe has some kind of agenda is going to come sue us.”

A group of Democratic state lawmakers this month asked Mayes to weigh in on what’s allowed.

In the newly released opinion, Mayes said the exceptions should be broad.

She wrote that the patient’s death does not need to be imminent or inevitable. She said doctors can provide an abortion after 15 weeks based on good faith that it’s needed to avert death or to prevent “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”

“There is nothing in the 15-week abortion ban that says that doctors have to allow women to get close to death’s door,” Mayes told reporters Thursday.

And Mayes said that the way the 2022 law is written allows doctors to make those decisions based on their subjective clinical judgment.

“The Legislature could have made it an objective reasonableness standard in which the doctor’s judgment would be compared to another doctor’s judgment, but they did not do that,” Mayes said.

Doctors can’t be prosecuted in these scenarios unless there’s proof they did not act in good faith, Mayes said.

“It does not mean that the treating physician’s assessment must be objectively correct if later evaluated by others with the benefit of hindsight,” Mayes wrote in the opinion.

Speaking to reporters, Mayes acknowledged that her legal guidance on this issue may only be temporary as Arizona’s abortion laws could change come November.

Abortion rights advocates are preparing to submit signatures next week to put a ballot measure before voters to expand abortion access beyond the 15-week law. The proposed constitutional amendment would allow abortions up to the point of fetal viability — around 24 weeks of gestation. It would also make broad exceptions for abortions later in pregnancy to protect the life or physical or mental health of the patient.

In a statement, the Arizona for Abortion Access campaign said Mayes’s interpretation of exceptions to the 15-week law does not change the need for their proposed amendment.

“We appreciate that the Attorney General feels there may be some emergency protections on a case-by-case basis, but the fact is the opinion of one politician offers no lasting clarity or reliability for Arizona medical professionals or patients,” the statement said.

But the It Goes Too Far campaign, which opposes the Arizona for Abortion Access Act, said Mayes’s opinion should reassure Arizona voters that the state’s current abortion restrictions include reasonable exceptions for emergencies.

“Ectopic pregnancy care and miscarriage care are available today and they will be available tomorrow, regardless of what happens with this amendment,” Joanna De La Cruz, a spokesperson for the campaign, told KJZZ News. “That’s all very clear and that’s in line with where Arizona voters are at.”

Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.
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