For Abortion Advocates, Now Is Not the Time for Retreat

In the wake of Arizona’s resurrection of a 19th-century law banning abortion, it’s clear that the post-Roe right will go to great lengths to limit reproduction freedom. The abortion rights movement will have to mount a campaign of equal magnitude.

Arizona for Abortion Access, the ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the Arizona State Constitution, holds a protest condemning Arizona House Republicans and the 1864 abortion ban on April 17, 2024. in Phoenix, Arizona. (Rebecca Noble / Getty Images)

Zombie laws from the nineteenth century are rising from the crypt.

In early April, the Arizona Supreme Court resuscitated a Civil War–era state law that bans nearly all abortions. The seemingly dead law from 1864 is enforceable once again, putting legal abortion care out of reach for the 1.6 million people of reproductive age in the state.

Arizona’s ban says anyone who “provides, supplies or administers” an abortion or abortion drugs will face a state prison sentence of two to five years unless the abortion is necessary to save the life of the person who is pregnant. There is exception for rape or incest.

The state Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a fifteen-week abortion ban legislators had passed in the spring of 2022, before Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, actually replaced the zombie law — which would at least allow people to get abortions up to fifteen weeks of pregnancy. The majority ruled that it didn’t and revived the Victorian-era near-total ban.

The misogyny on display in Arizona, with the seven conservative justices supporting a law passed before women had the right to vote, has set off a national backlash and an explosion of media coverage. On April 17, Republicans in the state blocked a vote to repeal the 1864 ban, with Democratic governor Katie Hobbs responding, “A law from 1864 written by twenty-seven men cannot be allowed to govern the lives of millions of Arizona women.”

Arizona’s Democratic attorney general Kris Mayes said she would not prosecute any doctors or women under the ban. “Today’s decision to reimpose a law from a time when Arizona wasn’t a state, the Civil War was raging, and women couldn’t even vote will go down in history as a stain on our state,” she said after the ruling on April 9.

Fourteen states have passed total abortion bans in the almost two years since Roe v. Wade was overturned. Each ban and restriction has been met with outrage by abortion supporters, but the Arizona ban’s massive shove backward has received a new level of pushback and media coverage due to its blatant sexism and the importance of the state in this November’s presidential election.

The backlash has been swift and furious. Abortion supporters have already collected more than enough signatures to get an abortion protection measure on the ballot this November. Arizona for Abortion Access, a coalition of reproductive rights groups, is supporting a proposed amendment that would protect abortion rights in the state constitution up until fetal viability, after which a patient could terminate a pregnancy if their life was endangered, according to measurements of either physical or mental health.

Recognizing the ban’s profound unpopularity and the threat it poses to their electoral chances in November, Republicans are scrambling to respond. Republican US Senate candidate Kari Lake, who called the 1864 abortion ban a “great law” during her failed campaign for Arizona governor in 2022, has changed her tune and now says she opposes the ban, even personally lobbying GOP legislators in the state to repeal it. Donald Trump is distancing himself from the latest bans — having backpedaled in recent years from advocating punishment for women who seek abortion care, to hinting that he would support a national fifteen-week ban, to claiming that states should be left to decide on abortion laws.

Many GOP leaders are trying desperately to spin their restrictions as compromises or trick voters into supporting their own alternative amendments that co-opt pro-choice language while enshrining existing abortion restrictions. As Arizona Republicans look for ways to change the narrative, a strategy document shows that they are considering proposing an alternative ballot measure to “protect” abortion up to fifteen weeks, designed to undercut the twenty-four-week ballot measure advocated by Arizona for Abortion Access.

The strategy document includes a slide that says, “PHASE 2: SEND VOTERS TWO OTHER OPTIONS THAT CONFLICT WITH AAA INITIATIVE,” and suggests using pro-choice sounding language for the name of the deceptive amendment, such as “Protecting Pregnant Women and Safe Abortions Act,” the “Arizona Abortion and Reproductive Care Act” or the “Arizona Abortion Protection Act.”

Democrats are trying to push the message that these extreme abortion bans are Trump’s fault and hoping that ballot measures protecting abortion access appear in as many states as possible this November, where voters galvanized by reproductive rights will show up on election day and vote for Joe Biden.

Abortion advocates in Florida have collected almost a million signatures to put an amendment to legalize abortion until viability on the ballot in November; the state Supreme Court ruled on April 1 that the ballot measure could go ahead, while issuing a separate ruling on the same day that triggers a law that bans abortion in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy and takes effect on May 1. All seven states that have had abortion protection ballot referendums since Roe was overturned have sided with abortion rights supporters.

If Biden and the Democrats really want to capitalize on the outrage, they should support reproductive freedom in more concrete ways: by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, which prohibits governmental restrictions on the provision of abortion care; repealing the Hyde Amendment so those on Medicaid have access to affordable abortion care; and repealing the Comstock Act so Republican extremists don’t use it as a backdoor national abortion ban by outlawing the mailing of abortion pills.

Now is not a time for compromise or moderation. Instead abortion supporters can use this momentum to push for full access to reproductive health care, including the end of all gestational bans and viability limits. Polling suggests that all abortion bans are unpopular, and a poll from March on voters’ views on abortion in the 2024 election finds that “in the two years post Dobbs, there seems to be a new generation of abortion voters largely made up of those who want abortion to be legal in all cases.”

As a result of the state Supreme Court upholding the 1864 abortion ban, unless the legislature intervenes within sixty days almost every abortion in Arizona will be a crime, and nearly every clinic will close its doors. Patients can still access abortion up to fifteen weeks for now, which means it’s a strategic time to donate to abortion funds serving Arizona and to spread the word about the wide availability of abortion pills. And it’s the perfect time to turn our despair into zombie-hunting rage.