Groups seek to halt Arizona “personhood” law after Roe falls

PHOENIX (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and an abortion rights group filed an emergency motion seeking to block a 2021 Arizona "personhood" law that they worry can be used to halt all abortions in the state.

The move comes a day after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the nearly 50 year old Roe v. Wade decision that held that women have a constitutional right to an abortion. The decision means a series of Arizona laws that had been unenforceable would now go into effect.

They include a law that goes into effect in September banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and another dating to back more than 100 years that makes all abortion illegal.

Saturday’s court action tries a new tack to an existing challenge to the 2021 law, which made abortion illegal if it was sought because of a genetic abnormality and also added the personhood provision.

A U.S. District Judge in Phoenix blocked part of the genetic abnormality law last fall but refused to put the "personhood" provision on hold. That part says the state will interpret all laws to confer the rights of people on unborn children, subject to the Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

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The ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights said the personhood provision puts medical providers and pregnant women at risk of prosecution. They said providers could face charges under a host of laws, including child endangerment or assault if the statute stands.

The law was championed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a powerful group that pushes for religious freedom, abortion restrictions and other social conservative policies.

Cathi Herrod, the group’s president, said Saturday that the Legislature passed the law to ensure unborn children have all full rights if the court overturned Roe.

"The overturning of Roe allows the states to set abortion laws," Herrod said. "Arizona set this law to say that unborn children are protected in the law."

She said this is the first of many cases she expects to be filed challenging Arizona abortion restrictions.

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‘We will not let 100-year-old laws govern our lives’

"It is anyone’s guess how to interpret this statute, and that’s the very basis of this motion. It’s a vagueness challenge," says Civia Tamarkin with the National Council for Jewish Women Arizona. "Under the personhood statute which is so vague, a provider could be guilty of homicide if at any stage of development a fetus considered a person, then anyone associated with the termination of that fetus could be charged with murder."

Several Arizona providers have temporarily stopped performing abortion services because the law remains uncertain. Planned Parenthood Arizona says they are helping patients find services out of state.

"Many of them have been traveling to Mexico, southern California," says Brittany Fonteno, Planned Parenthood Arizona President. "We've been working with Planned Parenthood affiliates in San Diego and Santa Barbara."

She says there are many conflicting laws about abortion in Arizona that need to be clarified, including an 1864 law banning all abortions. On social media, Arizona's Attorney General declared that is now the law of the land.

"Planned Parenthood Arizona will absolutely take him to court over this," Fonteno said. "We will not let 100-year-old laws govern our lives and our bodies today."

The case filed on behalf of two abortion providers who were among many across the state that halted the procedures after Friday’s ruling says the personhood law is too vague to be enforced.

The law says hundreds of civil and criminal laws should be interpreted to protect the rights of fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses at any stage of development. The emergency motion said it provides no guidance on applying it to abortion care or for police and prosecutors.

The ACLU wants a federal judge to block the law’s enforcement.

There were just over 13,000 abortions in Arizona in 2020, according to the most recent report from the Arizona Department of Health Services. Of those, fewer than 650 were performed after 15 weeks of gestation.