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Arizona lawmakers voted to repeal 1864 abortion law

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Arizona legislature has voted to repeal the state's Civil War-era ban on abortion. That is a law that was revived three weeks ago by the state Supreme Court. This court ruling shocked many people because the law had been dormant for decades, and it placed Arizona in the center of the country's ongoing state-by-state abortion debate. Although the Arizona Senate did narrowly pass a bill to repeal the law, it isn't clear yet when it will come off the books. We're joined now by member station KJZZ's Wayne Schutsky in Phoenix. Hi, Wayne.

WAYNE SCHUTSKY, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So tell us more about what happened in the Arizona Senate today.

SCHUTSKY: So Republicans have a narrow majority in the Senate, but a few of them joined with Democrats to pass this repeal law on a 16-14 vote. It's already passed the Arizona House in a similar vote, so now it's going to Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs, who said she plans to sign it. Senate Democrat Eva Burch summed up why she was voting for the repeal, which I think echoed the sentiment of a lot of Democrats. Note Eva Burch gained a lot of notoriety when she gave a speech on the Senate floor recently saying she was planning to receive an abortion, which she has now had. So here's what she had to say today.

EVA BURCH: I don't want us honoring laws about women written during a time when women were forbidden from voting because their voices were considered inferior to men.

SCHUTSKY: But even though a few Republicans joined Democrats, there weren't enough votes for an emergency clause that would make the repeal effective immediately. So it won't come off the books for at least three months, and that means the near-total ban could actually go back into effect before the repeal.

CHANG: Wow.

SCHUTSKY: But it looks like eventually the state could go back to a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy that it passed in 2022.

CHANG: OK. Well, apart from that tape that we just heard from Burch, what was the scene like in the Senate today?

SCHUTSKY: Somewhat chaotic. Even before senators took the floor, impassioned spectators on both sides of the debate argued loudly in the gallery that kind of overlooks the Senate. They later interrupted the debate on several occasions. And this pressure has been building for some time because it's taken three weeks to get this vote, because lawmakers are only meeting once a week right now. And we knew it would be a close vote, but previous procedural votes gave us a look that these two Republicans would cross the aisle to pass the repeal. One of those was Republican Senator Shawnna Bolick, who spent 20 minutes explaining her vote. And here she is acknowledging that the politics were complicated for her.

SHAWNNA BOLICK: As a pro-life myself, we should be pushing for the maximum protection for unborn children that can be sustained over time.

SCHUTSKY: And we've heard this explanation before from some Republicans who think that keeping the near-total ban in place will backfire because there's an expected ballot initiative in November that will enshrine broader abortion rights in the state Constitution. And she doesn't want it to be a choice between just that and this old law.

CHANG: OK. And real quick, just remind us how this old law came back to life last month.

SCHUTSKY: It was originally passed in 1864 by a territorial legislature, before Arizona was even a state. But it was kept on the books multiple times by lawmakers and remained mostly dormant in the 50 years until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. And as you mentioned, on April 9, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that it could go back into effect.

CHANG: Right. OK, so what will happen next given all this uncertainty about when the repeal actually happens?

SCHUTSKY: Well, there's some confusion about that, because like I mentioned, they couldn't get the emergency repeal that would allow it to take effect - go effect before the next three months or longer, meaning the near-total ban could again become enforceable in the meantime. Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs did issue an order saying Attorney General Kris Mayes, also a Democrat, could charge these prosecutions, and Mayes says she won't enforce them. But local prosecutors could still try, which would send the issue back to court. And the bigger question comes back to November, where that ballot measure enshrining pre-Dobbs abortion rights in the state Constitution is expected to be on the ballot.

CHANG: That is Wayne Schutsky of member station KJZZ in Phoenix. Thank you, Wayne.

SCHUTSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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