Bucking Trump, Anti-Abortion Movement Shows Deep Roots in Arizona

Bucking Trump, Anti-Abortion Movement Shows Deep Roots in Arizona

Speaker Ben Toma walked off the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives, resolute — if stressed — after he cast the pivotal vote to again block an effort to repeal the state’s 1864 abortion ban.

He knew he was going against the wishes of top Republicans like former President Donald J. Trump, who had called on the Legislature to change the ban. He worried about political blowback to Republicans in the coming elections.

But Mr. Toma saw himself as upholding moral principles far more foundational than current politics, the past president or even the ban itself. Attempts to undercut it as “a Civil-War-era law” were “sort of ridiculous,” he said in an interview on Wednesday after the vote. He pointed to the Constitution and Bill of Rights — and the Bible.

“Even all of our laws are actually based on, what, the Ten Commandments, and the Book of Genesis, which are thousands of years ago,” he said. “The whole idea that we are equal in the sight of God, our maker, that we have unalienable rights, all that, that is all fundamentally a Christian worldview.”

This commitment to Arizona’s 1864 ban — a near-total ban that the State Supreme Court recently reinstated — underscores the power of conservative Christian abortion opponents in shaping American abortion laws, even as they represent a minority view. Despite a popular backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision overturning a constitutional right to abortion in 2022, anti-abortion forces have maintained a stronghold in many state legislatures, not only in deeply conservative states like Alabama, but also closely divided ones like Arizona.

Backed by powerful local conservative lobbyists and activists, their hold illustrates a dynamic of a post-Roe v. Wade era: Even as they are losing political support from the top Republican in the country, Mr. Trump, they can stand firm in state legislatures that, because of the ruling striking down Roe, now have power to determine abortion law.

With the fight over the 1864 ban expected to continue consuming the Arizona Capitol in the week ahead, politicians and activists are clear about the Biblical roots of their convictions. Mr. Toma, an immigrant from Romania, said his perspective on abortion was not simply shaped by religion, but also by fleeing communism as a child and rejecting a “utilitarian” view of humanity. He is now a nondenominational Christian, and said he came to his views through studying philosophy and bioethics in college.

“Not all the Republicans obviously agree on every issue, and this is one that we disagree on, and I happen to think that abortion is wrong,” he said. “It comes down to: What do I think is right? What is just? What is ethical? And I have made my decision. And I am not going to change my mind.”

Calculated anti-abortion politicking has deep roots in Arizona. The Alliance Defending Freedom, the now-powerful conservative Christian legal group that helped overturn Roe and is working to limit access to medication abortion, is based in Scottsdale. The firm started there in 1994, founded by a coalition of conservative Christian leaders including James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.

But anti-abortion leaders are increasingly at odds with Mr. Trump, who built ties with them that helped usher him to power in 2016, but who now has openly attacked their uncompromising agenda amid growing political vulnerability.

A majority of Republican voters continue to oppose abortion. But the fight in Arizona reveals the fractures developing in the national and local Republican Party over abortion after the fall of Roe, and the urgency anti-abortion activists feel as the political foundation they relied on before Roe was overturned shifts.

The tension is evident in Mr. Toma’s own primary race for Congress, to fill an open seat left by the retiring Republican Representative Debbie Lesko, a longtime stalwart of the anti-abortion movement. In that crowded race, Mr. Trump has endorsed Abraham Hamadeh, who ran unsuccessfully for Arizona attorney general in 2022 and called the Arizona Supreme Court ruling upholding the 1864 law a political win for Democrats.

Groups like the Center for Arizona Policy and Arizona Right to Life have significant local clout, and pushed Republican lawmakers in the days leading up to the potential repeal vote, urging lawmakers to prevent it from coming to the floor.

That pressure from emboldened conservative Christian activists was palpable in the statehouse on Wednesday, as they arrived early to claim nearly every seat in the gallery. Minutes before the session was about the begin, almost everyone rose, extended their hands toward the House floor below and loudly recited The Lord’s Prayer. A woman stood up and declared, “We have truth on our side.”

“Whose truth?” retorted one of the few abortion rights supporters who managed to get a seat. The crowd murmured back in disapproval.

Afterward, Debi Vandenboom, a director at Arizona Women of Action, praised Mr. Toma and House Republicans for defending the ban but said the State Senate had “betrayed women and the pre-born” when it later introduced a bill to repeal the ban, with a couple of Republicans joining Democrats.

A handful of Republicans who represent moderate suburban districts or who reflect Arizona’s “Don’t Fence Me In” libertarian streak now find themselves increasingly at odds with unshakable abortion opponents from their own party.

“Why is the government trying to force this lack of decision-making on women, based on a religious perspective?” asked Representative David Cook, a cattle rancher from eastern Arizona. “I believe that life begins at conception, I really do. But I shouldn’t try to force my personal and religious beliefs.”

He voted with his fellow Republicans to block the past two repeal efforts for procedural reasons, but said he believed enough Republicans would join with Democrats this coming week to undo the law, even as Mr. Toma did not see that outcome. Mr. Cook, a Catholic, said he wanted to add exceptions for rape and incest to an existing ban on abortions after 15 weeks that has been in place in Arizona since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

The decision has been less wrenching for other religious conservatives like Senator David Farnsworth, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who said he is “100 percent pro-life” and equated abortion to murder. He voted to uphold the 1864 ban, and said nothing would change his vote.

Mr. Farnsworth said he was “disappointed and dismayed” that some Republicans are supporting the repeal. As the political pressure intensified, he said he did not know whether his caucus could continue to block repeal efforts when the Legislature returns on Wednesday.

Representative Neal Carter, a Republican, said many of his voters overwhelmingly oppose the repeal effort. He said his opposition to abortion was not rooted in his faith, but more in his belief that a fetus was a human life that deserves legal protection and has constitutional rights.

“The real kernel of this is: A fetus is either a human being, or it’s not,” he said.

Arizona is home to a radical fringe of the movement against abortion rights that supports criminalizing abortion from conception as homicide, based on an interpretation of the Bible — a position that is out of step with national leaders and that in some states could make women who have the procedure eligible for the death penalty.

Some abortion rights opponents — a critical source of voters and organizing might for Republicans — are now angry that prominent Republicans like Mr. Trump and Kari Lake, a Trump ally running for Senate, were now racing to distance themselves from the 1864 ban. It allows abortion only to save a woman’s life and has no exceptions for rape or incest.

“If you’re going to claim to be pro-life, you have to be pro-life all the time, not just when it suits your political aims,” said Heather Litchfield, a regional coordinator for the anti-abortion rights group Students for Life of America.

On Friday morning, she and a dozen other staff members and volunteers with the group put on red T-shirts and headed out onto the front lines of Arizona’s abortion fight, to try to persuade voters not to support a proposed ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the State Constitution, arguing it would allow abortion up to nine months.

The proposed amendment would prevent the state from restricting abortion through fetal viability, and allow abortions after viability to protect the patient’s “life or physical or mental health.”

As they walked through the suburban city of Mesa, the students said they were worried about the momentum behind the abortion measure, and by the shifting attitudes of politicians like Mr. Trump and Ms. Lake.

“It’s heartbreaking to see people abandon values they once held,” said Kaylee Stockton, who is studying nursing at Grand Canyon University, a prominent Arizona Christian college. “Their wavering isn’t bringing people over to their side.”

They found little support for the 1864 law as they rang doorbells on Friday.

Steve Holstein, 65, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2020 but is most likely supporting President Biden this election, expressed some misgivings about the proposed abortion amendment, but said he wanted to see the Legislature undo the 1864 law and revert to a 15-week ban.

“Democrats and Republicans need to keep the far left and far right at bay,” he told the students. “Compromise.”

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