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Abortion access group sues lawmakers over 'inflammatory' Arizona voter pamphlet language

Arizona for Abortion Access sign
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
A demonstrator holds a sign in support of the Arizona for Abortion Access ballot measure which would amend the state constitution to guarantee access to abortion.

The group backing an abortion-rights ballot measure set to go before Arizona voters in November has filed a lawsuit against the state Legislature, claiming Republican lawmakers approved politically charged language to describe the measure in informational pamphlets that will be sent to voters around the state.

State law requires legislative staff to prepare “an impartial analysis of the provisions of each ballot proposal of a measure or proposed amendment” that will go before voters in the upcoming election. That information is then included in pamphlets distributed to all voters by the Secretary of State’s Office.

On Monday, a legislative committee voted on language describing the 14 questions that could appear on Arizona ballots in November, including a measure that would enshrine the right to abortion in the state Constitution.

The Arizona for Abortion Access campaign, which collected over 800,000 signatures to put the proposal on the ballot, claims Republican legislators violated state law when they voted along party lines to approve a description that includes the term “unborn human being.”

Cheryl Bruce, campaign manager for the abortion initiative, said the term is politically charged, not impartial.

“This fall, when voters seek information about what is on their ballot, that information by law should be accurate and not tinged with inflammatory political rhetoric,” Bruce said.

That phrase is used to describe the existing state law banning abortions after 15 weeks that would no longer be in effect if voters approve the Arizona for Abortion Access measure.

“Current state law prohibits a physician from performing an abortion if the probable gestational age of the unborn human being is more than 15 weeks,” according to the pamphlet language approved by Republican lawmakers.

The Arizona for Abortion Access campaign said “unborn human being,” is a term often used by anti-abortion groups like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and the Center for Arizona Policy. The campaign said it should be replaced by the term “fetus,” which it argues is neutral and medically accurate, citing its use by medical groups like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

But Republicans shot down an amendment by Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton (D-Tucson) to do just that.

“I’m not a doctor, Rep. Stahl Hamilton, I don’t care what the medically accurate term is,” House Speaker Ben Toma (R-Peoria) said.

And Republicans argued the term fetus could also be considered politically charged by abortion rights opponents.

“Using the term ‘fetus’ is partial as well, for those of us on the pro-life side,” Toma said.

He argued the decision to include both terms – “fetus” and “unborn human being” – in the description is compliant with the law requiring neutral language.

“So the fact that the description actually uses both phrases in different sections to me seems very fair and balanced,” Toma said.

Republicans also pointed out that the term “unborn human being” already appears in state law, including in the 15-week abortion ban that is currently the law of the land.

But Andy Gaona, an attorney representing the Arizona for Abortion Access campaign, said the inclusion of politically-charged terms in state law does not give lawmakers permission to use that same language in informational pamphlets sent to voters.

“Statutory language does not have to be neutral, does not have to be impartial,” Gaona said. “But the language that the Legislative Council puts into the publicity pamphlet does have to be impartial.”

Gaona filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court challenging the language. He also filed an application for an injunction, asking the court to block the secretary of state from using the “unborn human being” language in the voter pamphlet and directing legislative staff to prepare a new description.

Toma said he is confident the language approved by Republicans will survive the court challenge.

“I am confident the court will agree that when we talk about abortion we are unmistakably talking about unborn children. Arizona’s 15-week law reflects that fact. This lawsuit is frivolous,” Toma said.

The issue must be decided quickly in order to give the Secretary of State’s Office enough time to print those voter information pamphlets ahead of the November election. According to the secretary of state, the print deadline for the pamphlet is Aug. 30.

Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.
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