Life Laws

Governor Jan Brewer Signs Arizona’s Extreme New Abortion Law

Life now starts earlier in Arizona: In practice, the state has banned abortions after about 18 weeks.

Josh Westrich / Corbis

Despite its name, critics derided the Women’s Health and Safety Act that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law today as cruel, dangerous, and hostile to women—likely to deter many Arizona women from seeking an abortion, and to distress those who nonetheless go through with one.

Arizona, which defines gestational age as beginning on the first day of a woman’s last period, has in practice banned abortions after about 18 weeks post-fertilization (20 weeks from the last menstruation) except in the case of medical emergencies. While that provision has been much discussed, abortions after that point account for only about 1 percent of the procedures currently performed.

The stipulation likely to be most widely felt is what experts are calling an effective shutdown of medication abortions. These nonsurgical abortions are usually performed within the first nine weeks of pregnancy, and account for between 17 and 20 percent of all abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights advocacy group. While women often take the pills at clinics and in their homes, the bill now mandates that a medical provider must have hospital privileges within 30 miles of where the procedure takes place. Many times clinics or homes are not within 30 miles of hospitals, and the distance prevents providers from other cities or even states from caring for women, says Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute. Another factor that could contribute to what Nash called a "shutdown" of medication abortions is that the law requires abortion pills to be administered using outdated protocols, confusing providers and obscuring proper use of the drugs.

While it becomes the seventh state to pass such legislation in the past two years, many Arizonans believe theirs is the most restrictive and sinister because of the degree to which it will legislate health care, thwart evidence-based medicine, and shame women. One in three women will have an abortion before age 45 according to Guttmacher, and more than half of those women already have a child.

The law “disregards women’s health in a way I’ve never seen before,” said Center for Reproductive Rights’ state advocacy counsel, Jordan Goldberg. “The women of Arizona can’t access medical treatment that other women can.”

Goldberg said her group is meticulously reviewing the law to consider a possible suit on behalf of client providers.

“This legislation is consistent with my strong track record of supporting common sense measures to protect the health of women and safeguard our most vulnerable population–the unborn,” Gov. Brewer said in a statement.

Other parts of the law includes education in public schools prioritizing birth and adoption, signs throughout health-care facilities warning against abortion “coercion,” and an order for the state health department to create and maintain a website touting alternatives to abortion and displaying images of fetuses. Also required is abortion counseling for women aiming to abort pregnancies due to fetal abnormalities, and if the abnormality is certain to be fatal, the counseling incorporates perinatal hospice information before ending the pregnancy. It reaffirms existing barriers to access, like the requirement of a notarized parental consent form for minors and a mandatory ultrasound screening within 24 hours of having an abortion.

State Rep. Kimberly Yee, the sponsor of the House bill, which passed Monday, said she acted with her constituents in mind, adding that many of them feel it “doesn’t go far enough.”

“In 2010 when I campaigned and knocked on doors the first thing people asked me was, ‘Where do you stand on life?’” said the 10th District representative, a former aide to then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yee said she championed the legislation because “I have to do what the majority of Arizona has asked me to do.”

The fingerprints of policy group Americans United for Life are all over much of the bill’s language, according to Nash. She says the legislation is a mishmash of parts of other states’ bills, and predicted that still other conservative states looking to restrict and discourage abortions will now look to Arizona’s bill as model legislation.

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“The point is to make it so difficult to provide abortions that no one will do it,” said Nash. “Arizona likes to thumb their nose at women. They take that as a badge of honor.”

“This is the most draconian right-wing legislature I’ve ever seen, and they are hand-in-hand the governor who is in the same camp,” said former Planned Parenthood national president and part-time Arizonan Gloria Feldt. “It was as bad when Napalitano was there, but she was always a step ahead of them. She had an initiative and they danced to her tune.”

Brewer, a Republican, was elected after Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano left her office to become President Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security. On its website, the AUL credits that move with their legislative success: “With the appointment of Janet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security, the Arizona legislature was finally able to capitalize on an opportunity to enact life-affirming legislation without fear of unwarranted veto.”

The law’s tenets will take effect within 90 days. North Dakota and Oklahoma courts are litigating challenges to similar laws in those states limiting medication abortion.