PHOENIX – Arizona Democrats vowed Saturday to fight for women's rights after a court reinstated a law first enacted during the Civil War that bans abortion in nearly all circumstances, looking to capitalize on an issue they hope will have a major impact on the midterm elections.
Republican candidates were silent a day after the ruling, which said the state can prosecute doctors and others who assist with an abortion unless it's necessary to save the mother's life. Kari Lake, the GOP candidate for governor, and Blake Masters, the Senate candidate, did not comment.
Katie Hobbs and Kris Mayes, the Democratic nominees for governor and attorney general, implored women not to sit on the sidelines this year, saying the ruling sets them back more than a century to an era when only men had the right to vote.
“We cannot let (Lake) hold public office and have the power to enact extreme anti-choice policies that she’s spent her entire campaign touting,” Hobbs said during a news conference outside the attorney general's office. “As Arizona’s governor I will do everything in my power and use every tool at my disposal to restore abortion rights in Arizona.”
The ruling presents a new hurdle for Republicans who were already struggling to navigate abortion politics. It fires up Democrats and distracts attention from the GOP's attacks on President Joe Biden and his record on border security and inflation less than three weeks before the start of early and mail-in voting, which are overwhelmingly popular in Arizona.
Abortion rights are particularly salient among suburban women, who play a decisive role in close elections in Arizona.
“In Arizona, with a draconian abortion law in effect today, I think you will see suburban women take a real look at Democratic candidates who promise to do something even if it’s not in their power,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican consultant.
Democrats have poured tens of millions of dollars into television advertising focused on abortion rights, and women have been registering to vote in greater numbers than men across the country.
The old law was first enacted among a set of laws known as the “Howell Code” adopted by the 1st Arizona Territorial Legislature in 1864. Legislative researchers said it remained in the penal code in 1901 and was readopted in subsequent rewrites, including in the 1970s.
Lake has spoken positively of Arizona's territorial ban on abortion, which she called “a great law that's already on the books.” She has called abortion “the ultimate sin” and has also said abortion pills should be illegal.
Masters called abortion “demonic” during the GOP primary and called for a federal personhood law that would give fetuses the rights of people. He’s toned down his rhetoric more recently, deleting references to a personhood law from his campaign website and dropping language describing himself as “100% pro-life."
More recently, Masters has said he would support a bill proposed by Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., that would ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest or risk to the physical health of the mother. He has also said he supports a different Arizona law that seeks to ban abortions at 15 weeks.
Neither the Lake nor Masters campaign responded to requests for comment.
“Their silence speaks volumes,” said Mayes, the Democratic attorney general candidate. "They know how absolutely unpopular this 1901 law is. They know how indefensible it is. And they know that when Nov. 8 comes the people of Arizona are going to resoundingly reject this extreme abortion ban this attack on the people of Arizona by voting them down.”
If elected, Mayes said, she would not enforce the abortion law and would direct county prosecutors to do the same. She said she believes it violates the privacy rights guaranteed by the state constitution.
Hobbs said she'd push lawmakers on her first day in office to repeal the abortion ban, a long shot for a Legislature that is widely expected to be controlled by Republicans. Failing that, she said she'd support a ballot measure giving the voters the chance to decide in the 2024 election.
Hobbs also said she'd veto any legislation that further restricts abortion.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre condemned the ruling, which she said would have “catastrophic, dangerous and unacceptable” consequences.
“Make no mistake: this backwards decision exemplifies the disturbing trend across the country of Republican officials at the local and national level dead-set on stripping women of their rights," Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
This story has corrected the history of the territorial law to show that it has been documented in the penal code as far back as 1901.