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Arizona abortion ruling highlights policy struggle within GOP

Decision would effectively prohibit abortion in the state, with exceptions only for the life of the pregnant person

Arizona Republican Rep. Juan Ciscomani speaks with CQ Roll Call in his Longworth Building office on May 16, 2023.
Arizona Republican Rep. Juan Ciscomani speaks with CQ Roll Call in his Longworth Building office on May 16, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One day after former President Donald Trump backed away from a national abortion ban, an Arizona Supreme Court ruling criminalizing abortion in the state highlighted a growing GOP divide on the issue, with a trio of prominent Arizona Republicans blasting the decision.

Senate candidate Kari Lake, a Trump ally who defended Trump’s false claims he won the 2020 election, and Rep. Juan Ciscomani, a rising star in the House Republican Conference, criticized the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday enforcing an 1864 law eliminating all abortions in the state except in the case of saving the life of the pregnant person. Rep. David Schweikert, too, weighed in against the decision.

Ciscomani, who called the ruling “a disaster,” defended a previous state law banning abortion after 15 weeks, saying “it respected women and the difficult decision of ending a pregnancy — one I will never personally experience and won’t pretend to understand.” 

“As my record shows, I’m a strong supporter of empowering women to make their own healthcare choices and I oppose a national abortion ban,” he said. 

Ciscomani won his seat in 2022 by 1.5 percentage points in a district that President Joe Biden would have won in 2020 by 1.5 percentage points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as Tilt Republican.

His Democratic opponent in this year’s elections, Kirsten Engel, vowed to restore Roe v. Wade and criticized Ciscomani as having “voted again and again to restrict abortion access.”

Lake, meanwhile, called on Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, and the Arizona Legislature to come up with an “immediate common sense solution Arizonans can support.” 

“I am not going to D.C. to legislate an issue that has been returned to the states,” said Lake, who lost the governor’s race to Hobbs in 2022. 

Lake’s statement, in particular, echoed Trump, who on Monday backed away from a national abortion ban, saying the issue should be left to states. Trump’s comments outraged anti-abortion groups such as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and March for Life. 

Restricting abortion access is unpopular among voters — every state ballot initiative on abortion in the wake of the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling that overturned the right to an abortion has gone toward increased abortion access or against further restrictions.

In the 4-2 ruling Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization makes the 1864 law enforceable, but also issued a 14-day stay against enforcement while a lower court considers “additional constitutional challenges” that have not been resolved.

The 160-year-old law, which predates Arizona’s existence as a U.S. state and women’s right to vote in the United States, makes abortion a felony punishable by two to five years in prison for anyone who performs an abortion or helps a woman obtain the procedure. Before the ruling, Arizona law allowed for abortions up to 15 weeks. But the Civil War-era law was revived in September 2022 by an Arizona judge, launching a lengthy legal battle.

Still, abortion access in Arizona could be left to voters in the state this year. The reproductive rights group Arizona for Abortion Access has been collecting signatures to meet a July 2024 deadline to put a measure on the November ballot protecting access to the procedure. Earlier this month, the group said they’d far exceeded the required number of signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

Arizona is considered a swing state, with Biden winning it by just 0.3 percentage points in 2020.

In a statement, the White House called the Arizona ruling a “result of the extreme agenda of Republican elected officials who are committed to ripping away women’s freedom.”

“Arizona just rolled back the clock to a time before women could vote — and, by his own admission, there’s one person responsible: Donald Trump,” said Vice President Kamala Harris.

Schweikert, who has an A+ rating from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said the issue should be decided by voters, “not legislated from the bench.” Like Lake and Ciscomani, he called on the state legislature to take action.

His district, which he won in 2022 by 0.8 of a percentage point, is also Tilt Republican, according to Inside Elections. Biden won that district by 1.1 percentage points in 2020.

The Democrats seeking to unseat Schweikert in November were quick to weigh in.

Conor O’Callaghan called the ruling an outrage and said his campaign is distributing Arizona for Abortion Access petitions. Marlene Galán-Woods, who has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, said she was “horrified and infuriated by today’s draconian decision to ban nearly all access to abortion.”

Several other states will have abortion petitions on the ballot this November, including Florida and Maryland; citizens in states including Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota are working to secure enough signatures for a ballot initiative.  

Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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