Arizona State Legislature approves abortion ban for genetic issues

Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona (file)

Republicans who control the Arizona Legislature on Thursday approved a sweeping anti-abortion bill that bans the procedure if the woman is seeking it solely because a fetus has a genetic abnormality such as Down syndrome.

Doctors who perform an abortion solely because the child has a survivable genetic issue can face felony charges. The proposal also contains a raft of other provisions sought by abortion opponents. 

The party-line votes send the measure to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, an abortion opponent who has never vetoed a piece of anti-abortion legislation. Democrats universally opposed Senate Bill 1457

The vote came after the House and Senate agreed to amend the measure to satisfy concerns of a lone GOP senator who opposed it earlier this month and blocked it from advancing.

Related: Arizona bill that aims to ban abortion for genetic issues revived with minor changes

Lawmakers in both the Senate and House spent hours explaining their support or opposition to the measure, laying bare the stark divide between abortion foes and backers. 

"The bans on abortion based on the reasons behind a person’s reason have never been about promotion of equality," said Sen. Lela Alston, a Phoenix Democrat. "The ban proposed in this bill is part of a larger campaign to stigmatize abortion and to pass as many laws as possible to restrict access to abortion care. "

Republicans said the measure was about the right to life.

"I think we need to be honest with ourselves," said Sen. Kelly Townsend, a Mesa Republican. "Aborting a child because there’s a genetic abnormality is not health care. You are euthanizing a child that has a genetic abnormality. It’s euthanasia, it’s not health care."

Republican Sen. Paul Boyer of Glendale made a blunt but similar argument.

"Abortion is not health care," Boyer said. "Abortion takes the life of an innocent child — every single time." 

The abortion bill as originally written made it a felony for a doctor to perform the procedure because the fetus has a genetic abnormality like Down syndrome, and contained a slew of other provisions including one opposition that confers all civil rights to unborn children. Democrats call that "personhood" provision a backdoor way to allow criminal charges against a woman who has an abortion. 

A House Republican, Rep. Regina Cobb of Lake Havasu City, objected because a woman could not legally have an abortion if the fetus could not survive, so it was amended to allow that and sent back to the Senate. GOP Sen. Tyler Pace of Mesa also demanded an amendment over concerns a jury could second-guess a doctor’s decision that a fetus could not survive.

Pace’s concerns were addressed Monday with another amendment in a House-Senate conference committee. The measure now makes it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion if the sole reason the woman seeks it is because the fetus has a genetic abnormality — providing a loophole for women who can simply say they want an elective abortion. And it clarifies the definition of a lethal fetal abnormality. 

Another part of the amendment clarified that in-vitro fertilization is exempted from the law. That was prompted by Democrats’ concerns that the bill’s "personhood" section would ban those procedures. The Democrats issued a lengthy written rebuttal to the bill after the final amendment.

The measure is a top priority for the social conservative group Center for Arizona Policy. Its president, Cathi Herrod, routinely backs anti-abortion bills in the Legislature. Her group and others pressured Pace, who also opposes abortion, to accept changes.

Democrats say the bill infringes on a woman’s right to choose. In addition to the ban on abortions for genetic abnormalities and the "personhood" provision, the bill bans mail delivery of abortion-inducing medication, allows the father or maternal grandparents of a fetus aborted due to a genetic issue to sue, and bans the spending of any state money toward organizations that provide abortion care.

The measure also requires fetal remains to be buried or cremated, and it forbids state universities from providing abortion care. It also repeals an old law allowing women to be charged for seeking an abortion, needed in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that found women have a constitutional right to seek an abortion. 

Republican-controlled legislatures in Arizona and several other states emboldened by the possibility that a more conservative Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade have embraced proposals this year that could completely ban abortion. An Arizona proposal doing that, however, has not advanced.

Last week, a divided federal appeals court lifted the hold on a similar Ohio law that prohibits doctors from performing abortions based on a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Judges of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowly reversed two earlier decisions blocking enforcement of Ohio’s 2017 law. A majority of the appeals court said the law doesn’t impede a woman’s right to an abortion.

Monday’s amendment to the Arizona bill also added a legislative intent clause that included much of the reasoning the appeals court used in the Ohio decision.

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