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Arizona Supreme Court rules that a near-total abortion ban from 1864 is enforceable


PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a 160-year-old near-total abortion ban still on the books in the state is enforceable, a bombshell decision that adds the state to the growing lists of places where abortion care is effectively banned.

The ruling allows an 1864 law in Arizona to stand that criminalized abortion by making it a felony punishable by two to five years in prison for anyone who performs or helps a woman obtain one. 

The law — which was codified again in 1901, and once again in 1913, after Arizona became a state — included an exception to save the woman’s life.

That Civil War-era law — enacted a half-century before Arizona even gained statehood — was never repealed and an appellate court ruled last year that it could remain on the books as long as it was “harmonized” with the 2022 law, leading to substantial confusion in Arizona regarding exactly when during a pregnancy abortion was outlawed.

protest demonstration abortion rights
Abortion rights protesters chant during a Pro Choice rally at the Tucson Federal Courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., on July 4, 2022.Sandy Huffaker / AFP via Getty Images file

The decision — which could shutter abortion clinics in the state — effectively undoes a lower court’s ruling that stated that a more recent 15-week ban from March 2022 superseded the 1864 law.

In a 4-2 ruling, the court’s majority concluded that the 15-week ban “does not create a right to, or otherwise provide independent statutory authority for, an abortion that repeals or restricts” the Civil War-era ban “but rather is predicated entirely on the existence of a federal constitutional right to an abortion since disclaimed” by the 2022 Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

“Absent the federal constitutional abortion right, and because” the 2022 law  does not independently authorize abortion, there is no provision in federal or state law prohibiting” the 1864 ban.

They added, that the ban “is now enforceable.”

Tuesday’s ruling marks the latest chapter in a decades-long saga of litigation in the battleground state over abortion rights. 

Reproductive rights groups had sued to overturn the 19th century law in 1971.

But when the Roe decision came down in 1973, state court ruled against those groups and placed an inunction on the 1864 ban that remained in effect until the Dobbs decision.

In March 2022, Republican lawmakers in the state enacted the 15-week trigger ban, which, months later — after the Dobbs decision — snapped into effect. The law makes exceptions for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest. 

Litigation resumed after that decision as lawmakers on both sides of the issues sought clarity on whether to enforce the 1864 near-total ban or the 2022 15-week ban.

A state appellate initially court ruled that both the 1864 and 2022 laws could eventually be “harmonized,” but also said that the 15-week ban superseded the near-total abortion ban and put on hold large parts of the older law.

But the issue could soon be in the hands of voters. Abortion rights groups in the state are likely to succeed in their goal of putting a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2024 ballot that would create a “fundamental right” to receive abortion care up until fetal viability, or about the 24th week of pregnancy.


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