Arizona Republicans Who Supported Repealing an Abortion Ban Face Blowback

By Equipo
9 Min Read

State Representative Matt Gress, a Republican in a moderate slice of Phoenix, was in line at his neighborhood coffee shop on Thursday when a customer stopped and thanked him for voting to repeal an 1864 law that bans abortion in Arizona.

“I know you’re taking some heat,” he told Mr. Gress.

More than some.

Shortly after the repeal bill squeaked through the Arizona House on Wednesday with support from every Democrat, as well as Mr. Gress and two other Republicans, anti-abortion activists denounced Mr. Gress on social media as a baby killer, coward and traitor. The Republican House speaker booted Mr. Gress off a spending committee. And some Democrats dismissed his stance as a bid to appease swing voters furious over the ban during an election year.

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Gress said that he was trying to chart a middle path through a wrenching debate over abortion that has consumed Arizona politics in the two weeks since the State Supreme Court revived the Civil War-era ban.

“There are extremes on both ends here,” he said. “To go from abortion being legal and constitutionally protected to nearly a complete ban overnight is not something that the electorate is going to be OK with.”

Mr. Gress, 35, a former teacher and school-board member, worked as a budget director under Arizona’s previous governor, the Republican Doug Ducey. He was first elected in 2022 to represent a swath of Phoenix and Scottsdale that spreads from middle-class neighborhoods through strip malls, desert parks and wealthy gated communities.

He speaks with the measured cadences of someone who has appeared on plenty of news programs, and had focused his attention on homelessness and teacher pay before abortion erupted into an all-consuming legislative battle.

On Thursday, some voters in Mr. Gress’s district praised him for helping to get the repeal bill through the House. Josh Offenhartz, a 36-year-old lawyer, said he believed that life began at conception, but agreed with former President Bill Clinton’s position that abortion should be safe, legal and rare — not banned altogether.

“I don’t believe a draconian law from the 19th century should tell us what to do today,” he said.

But Diana and Marco Collins, a retired couple who recently moved to the Phoenix area, said they were disgusted by the repeal vote and upset with the Republicans who sided with Democrats. As devoted Christians, they said they viewed abortion as genocide.

“It’s about my faith,” Ms. Collins, 56, said. “We’ve totally put God out.”

The State Senate is expected to vote on repealing the 1864 ban on Wednesday, and lawmakers say the bill appears to have enough Republican support to pass. Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, has been urging lawmakers to pass the repeal and said that she would sign it.

For years, Democrats said, Republican lawmakers in Arizona steadfastly opposed their efforts to undo the 1864 ban. Most Republicans voted against the repeal on Wednesday.

But the political ground shifted this month after the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the 1864 ban.

A handful of Arizona Republicans quickly put out statements criticizing the ruling, worried about the blowback from voters who called it archaic and extreme. Former President Donald J. Trump, who has taken credit for the overturning of the constitutional right to abortion, urged Arizona’s legislators to repeal the ban. So did Kari Lake, a Republican Senate candidate and Trump ally who once called it a “great law.”

The law outlaws abortion from conception except to save the mother’s life, and makes no exceptions in cases of rape or incest. It has been on hold since the court’s decision and is not expected to take effect until at least June.

The fractures within the Republican Party over abortion were on display on Wednesday as Mr. Gress stood up to call for a vote on a Democratic legislator’s bill to repeal the 1864 law. As he started to speak, Representative Jacqueline Parker, a member of the ultraconservative Arizona Freedom Caucus, yelled out “Point of order!” and tried to scuttle the vote on procedural grounds.

Watching it all were hundreds of anti-abortion activists from churches and advocacy groups who thronged to the Capitol to pressure legislators to reject the repeal effort. Outside, they waved posters with images of fetuses on them and handed out models of fetuses. Inside the House chamber, they quietly prayed and lifted their hands. Many filed out before the final vote was tallied.

Some Arizona Republicans who broke with their party said they had worried that leaving the 1864 ban in place would supercharge voter support for a ballot measure to add abortion protections to the state constitution.

Organizers say they have already collected more than 500,000 signatures — more than the 384,000 they need to get on the ballot. Cheryl Bruce, manager of the Arizona for Abortion Access campaign, said that donations and enthusiasm from volunteers and voters spiked after the court upheld the 1864 ban.

The abortion-rights activists’ measure would prevent Arizona from restricting abortions before fetal viability, and allow for abortions after viability if they were necessary to protect a patient’s “life or physical or mental health.”

Representative Tim Dunn, a Republican from the farming county of Yuma, said he voted for a repeal in the hopes that doing so would complicate the abortion options for voters in November.

If the 1864 law is repealed, lawmakers say that abortions in the state will be allowed through the 15th week of pregnancy under a partial ban passed by Republicans in 2022.

That 15-week ban has largely been in place since Roe v. Wade was overturned. Several Republicans have called the 15-week ban a reasonable middle ground, but critics say it sets an arbitrary cutoff and contains no exceptions for rape or incest.

Arizona Republicans are also considering whether to offer their own competing abortion ballot measures to muddy the choice for voters, according to documents prepared by lawyers for House members.

“Arizonans do want a choice,” Mr. Dunn said. “I’d like it to be lower than the 15 weeks, but we have to go back to something reasonable. Because we can’t go to something extreme.”

Stacy Pearson, a Democratic political consultant in Phoenix, said Arizona voters would remain galvanized by abortion. She said that the 1864 ban could still lead abortion providers to shut down because the repeal would not take effect for 90 days.

“I don’t think you can heal this wound, with female voters in particular,” she said. “Even if the repeal passes, Arizona’s going to stay in a state of limbo. This isn’t about politics. We’re talking about women who are in need of health care. This was going to kill people.”

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