Two hours of political theater ensued on Wednesday after the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee forced a hearing on a bill to repeal a 2017 abortion law, despite repeated requests by the bill’s Democratic sponsor that he pull it from the agenda.
Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, sponsored House Bill 2696, which aimed to repeal a fetal resuscitation law that the Legislature passed in 2017. Among other provisions, that law requires doctors try to save the life of a fetus born alive during an abortion, regardless of gestational age. Many doctors and abortion rights advocates have argued that the bill is cruel because it requires doctors to attempt to save fetuses with zero chance of survival, while pro-life supporters said it was needed to save children who survive abortion attempts but would die without further medical care.
According to Terán, legislative staffers went further than she intended when they drafted HB2696, striking a pre-existing law from the 1970s mandating that “all available means and medical skills are used to promote, preserve and maintain the life of such a fetus or embryo” in such situations.
Because the bill would repeal an entire section of statute, rather than just part of it, Terán asked Rep. John Allen, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, to withdraw the bill. She emphasized that it didn’t have the votes to pass, and that it had unintended provisions.
But Allen decided to hear the bill anyway.
In a Feb. 15 email, Terán told her 15 Democratic co-sponsors that Allen, R-Phoenix, denied her request in order to make a “political example” of the bill.
Terán reiterated that request at Wednesday’s hearing, only to be rebuffed by Allen.
“You did tell me that this was political,” Terán told Allen during the committee hearing.
Allen noted that the bill’s sponsors included all four members of House Democratic leadership, and called it a “core value” of many Democrats.
He also said he was under no obligation to shelve the bill at the request of the sponsor.
“That is a courtesy that has been recognized, but not always followed,” Allen said of the common legislative practice of honoring such requests from bill sponsors.
The rest of the committee’s Republican members stood by Allen’s decision, and Democrats forced multiple unsuccessful votes to table HB2696.
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said the committee should hear the bill because Democrats frequently complain about Republicans not hearing their bills. Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, said he was speaking for the unborn and children who could be aborted.
“It is apparent that there are members of this committee who will do everything they can to subvert a discussion of this bill,” said Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale.
After two hours of discussion and testimony by the bill’s opponents, the committee voted unanimously against the bill, with Democratic Reps. Domingo DeGrazia and Kirsten Engel voting “present” in protest of Allen’s decision. Engel called Allen’s decision a “slap in the face” to Terán.
The dispute over HB2696 evokes recent debates in New York and Virginia, where Democratic legislation loosening restrictions on third-trimester abortions, which are legal in those states only in cases of medical necessity, triggered outrage among Republicans. Many Republicans, including President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address, have used the debates in those states to attack Democrats on abortion.
Days after Terán asked that HB2696 be pulled, the Arizona Republican Party sounded the alarm, with Chairwoman Kelli Ward urging people in a press statement to call their legislators and tell them to vote against “this horrific legislation.” Before the hearing, Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, posted a picture of herself on Facebook with teardrops drawn onto her face in protest of HB2696.
The Center for Arizona Policy, a Christian conservative advocacy group that is the driving force behind much of Arizona’s pro-life legislation, boasted after the hearing that supporters of the bill “got a lesson in Arizona values.”
“This is Arizona, not New York, not Virginia,” CAP President Cathi Herrod said in a press release.
Democratic committee members exacted a small amount of revenge later in the hearing. After Allen decided to hold a bill he sponsored that would have allowed some prison inmates to get an earlier release, he apologized to the numerous people who attended the hearing so they could testify in favor of the bill. Engel argued that the bill’s supporters be allowed to talk, given that Allen insisted on hearing HB2696, in part, because so many opponents wanted to make their voices heard.
”I’m … seeing a real contradiction here,” Engel said. “People who have come from far away to talk about a bill that you are now retaining.”
Allen agreed to hear testimony on the bill, though there was no vote on the measure.
An hour after the extended debate on HB2696 ended, and following the fruitless discussion on the sentencing bill, Allen implored a speaker on a different piece of legislation to wrap up his comments and urged the committee to act quickly so the committee’s hearing wouldn’t run too long.