Republicans might put their own abortion measure on the ballot

Republicans in the Arizona legislature are considering sending their own abortion measure to the ballot this November to compete with a citizen-led one that’s already in the works. 

A day after the state House of Representatives erupted in chaos over an attempt to repeal a Civil War-era abortion ban that was just deemed enforceable by the Arizona Supreme Court, Republican House Speaker Ben Toma told conservative talk show host James T. Harris that his caucus was considering all its options. 



The near-total ban on abortion that is set to become the law of the land in June was originally enacted in 1864, almost 50 years before Arizona became a state. The Supreme Court’s ruling could lure more Democratic voters to the polls this fall, threatening to upend Republicans’ tenuous control of the Legislature. The GOP has a one-seat majority in each legislative chamber, and Toma acknowledged the political difficulty of the situation. 

A handful of Republicans, including some in competitive districts, are calling for a repeal of the 1864 ban, most notably Phoenix Rep. Matt Gress, who made the initial motion on April 10 to bring a Democratic repeal bill up for a vote. 

Instead of voting on the bill, Gress’s Republican colleagues voted to recess. But some GOP lawmakers have publicly said they also want to repeal the 1864 abortion ban, including Rep. David Cook and Sens. T.J. Shope and Shawnna Bolick. 

Toma conceded that Republicans will face the consequences of their actions at the ballot box this November, and speculated that was motivating the Republicans — all of whom have professed to be anti-abortion — to push to allow abortions. 

If the 1864 law is repealed, a 2022 law limiting abortions to 15 weeks of pregnancy would go into effect. More than 96% of abortions in Arizona took place in the first 15 weeks of gestation in 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

“They think what they’re doing is necessary to save the Republican majority in the November election,” he said. “In other words, I think they think sacrificing themselves is worth it if it results in Republicans keeping control of the House and Senate as a backstop to (Gov. Katie) Hobbs and some of the unhinged Democrats…”

Toma also acknowledged the political difficulty of the situation with national figures like former President Donald Trump, who has taken credit for U.S. Supreme Court justices he appointed stripping women of the constitutional right to abortion, and U.S. Senate Candidate Kari Lake flipping their stances on abortion and calling for the repeal of the 160-year-old ban. 

“What we’re asking is for our legislators to go against their ethical beliefs and to vote for something that would allow abortion,” Toma said. “Now, I understand what the reason for that is, — it’s a pragmatic argument that, if you don’t do this, the outcome could potentially be much, much worse (politically).”

Republicans are already facing a robust Democratic campaign to flip the legislature in the fall, and Democrats are counting on the passion surrounding the issue of abortion to bring more liberal voters to the polls. 

Toma told Harris that Republican leaders still need to meet with their caucus members to discuss all the options, but that sending something to voters this fall, which would sidestep a veto of the legislation from Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, was one possibility. 

“There will be consequences. We will keep them in check,” Toma said of House Democrats. “We will look at all options, including potentially sending other referrals to the ballot. If there is a way to update the 1864 law in a way that can get signed — to be blunt with you, I just don’t see how that happens with Hobbs as governor — but there are ways for us to go around her by going directly to the ballot, and that’s all on the table.” 

The speaker also doubled down on his personal stance on the issue, saying that he is “100% pro-life” and accusing Democrats who support the abortion rights voter initiative of backing partial-birth abortions. 

Partial-birth abortion is not a medical term, but a phrase used by anti-abortion activists to describe a procedure that was banned at the federal level around 20 years ago

The Arizona for Abortion Access campaign, which is spearheaded by several reproductive rights groups, has already collected more than the minimum number of signatures needed to head to the ballot in the fall. If voters favor it, the initiative would enshrine abortion rights in the Arizona Constitution, allowing the procedure up to the point of fetal viability — around 24 weeks of pregnancy — and allows exceptions after that point if a patient’s health care provider deems it necessary to protect the woman’s life or mental or physical health. 

“This extreme version that they’re pushing is worth us considering sending something to counter it at the ballot,” Toma said. “But it’s a very difficult situation to ask of our members.” 

Toma said he worried that asking other Republicans in the legislature to vote for a 15-week or 12-week ban, or a ban after a fetal heartbeat is detectable would put them at risk of attacks from their political opponents, who might dishonestly try to paint them as pro-choice. 

But the legislature already passed a 15-week ban in March 2022 when Republican Gov. Doug Ducey headed the executive branch, and many of the Republican legislators who are still in office voted for it, including Toma. And Republicans included a section in that bill that specifically said the 15-week ban did not supersede the 1864 law, in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

Republicans aren’t wrong to be fearful of the consequences of their own actions, with one 2023 poll finding that as much as 62% of Arizonans believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. 

While Trump and Lake have both suddenly softened their stance on abortion, Toma has not. 

“I, personally, don’t think that, just because something is old, that it’s unjust or unconstitutional,” Toma said. “The Constitution is way older, as is our entire system of Judeo-Christian morality, because, I mean, the Ten Commandments are thousands of years old, if we’re being direct and honest here.” 

When the 1864 ban was first enacted, slavery was still legal in the United States, women didn’t have the right to vote and scientists had not yet discovered that the uniting of the sperm and the egg was the process at the cellular level that resulted in pregnancy. 

Toma told Harris that he shut down moves to vote on the Democratic bill on April 10 to give his caucus more time to discuss its options. With both chambers now only meeting one day each week — on Wednesdays — it’s difficult to say when any Republican legislation to counter what Democrats have proffered will be put to a vote.

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