Hobbs executive order bars county attorneys from prosecuting abortion providers

By: - June 23, 2023 12:41 pm

Gov. Katie Hobbs speaks at a press conference for a statewide Right to Contraception Act in Phoenix on June 22, 2023. The governor commemorated the one-year anniversary of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization by supporting legislative moves to protect contraception access, and issuing an executive order to prevent the prosecution of abortion providers. Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror

Gov. Katie Hobbs issued an executive order this week that preemptively blocks county attorneys across the state from trying to prosecute abortion providers. 

The action follows closely on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the Dobbs decision, which eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion and opened the door to criminalizing doctors. Democrats across the country and in Arizona, which is currently under a 15-week gestational abortion ban, have mobilized this week to draw renewed attention to reproductive health care access. 

“I will not allow extreme and out of touch politicians to get in the way of the fundamental right Arizonans have to make decisions about their own bodies and futures,” Hobbs wrote, in a press release announcing the executive order. 

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While doctors in the Grand Canyon State labor under a 2022 law that limits abortions past 15 weeks, a near-total abortion ban from 1864 that threatens them with 2 to 5 years in prison is still on the books. The 2022 law carries with it a class 6 felony and revoked license for doctors who perform an abortion for any reason other than imminent threats to life. 

The 1864 law was briefly in place last year, as Republican then-Attorney General Mark Brnovich argued in court that it could coexist with the 15 week limit and county attorneys could choose which to enforce. A chief concern for Arizona judges at the time, who ruled that the 2022 law should take precedence, was that Brnovich’s defense left too much up to a county attorney’s political affiliations. The ruling holding the 1864 near-total ban at bay is under appeal and at least one county attorney, Yavapai County’s Dennis McGrane, has indicated an interest in upholding it

Hobbs’ order would circumvent the ability of any of the state’s 15 county attorneys to prosecute abortion providers by requiring any cases involving abortion law violations to be referred solely to Attorney General Kris Mayes – a Democrat and staunch pro-choice advocate who has repeatedly refused to take on her predecessor’s stances and has instead joined numerous initiatives to defend abortion access. Concentrating legal actions in the state’s attorney general office, Hobbs wrote in the order, will “provide uniformity and ensure equal and consistent application of the law across the state”. 

“Governor Hobbs’ Executive Order provides important protections in Arizona on this issue — and it underscores our shared commitment to proactively defend the fundamental rights of individuals and ensure access to reproductive healthcare in Arizona,” lauded Mayes, in a written statement. “Together, we will continue to do what the voters of Arizona elected us to do — fight like hell to protect the rights of Arizonans to make their own private medical decisions without interference from extremist politicians and anti-choice groups.”

Pima County Attorney Laura Conover, also a reproductive rights advocate who helped challenge the 1864 near-total ban in court, celebrated Hobbs’ order as a much-needed defense for Arizonans who live in areas that aren’t overseen by pro-choice officials. 

“Every Arizonan should have access to basic reproductive freedoms, no matter their county,” she said. “We are in a key historical moment and I applaud the Governor’s intention to ensure equal protection and access to critical health services across the State.”

The order also pledges to reject any requests from out of state officials to extradite abortion providers to punish them for providing abortions to non-resident women. Arizona clinics have seen a flood of patients from neighboring states, like Texas which has a 6-week ban in place. Republican lawmakers in anti-abortion states have previously floated the idea of prosecuting doctors who they perceive as violating their abortion laws, but legislation introduced to do so has yet to succeed.

Hobbs also prohibited state agencies from assisting in out-of-state investigations, or handing over any reproductive health care information that may be used to criminalize Arizona providers. Only a court order, federal law or Arizona law would allow such actions to take place. Finally, the executive order creates a new advisory council whose aim will be to recommend actions Hobbs can take to expand reproductive health care access across the state. 

Planned Parenthood Arizona, which runs four of the state’s nine abortion clinics, applauded Hobbs’ order, while noting that there remain issues to tackle to preserve abortion access. The organization is one of the leading parties in the lawsuit that was recently revived by anti-abortion groups seeking to reinstate the 1864 near-total abortion ban. The executive order is a product of discussions between the governor’s office and local abortion advocates, including PPAZ, which has been lobbying for executive orders to protect providers since January

“This executive order will help ease the fear and uncertainty that swept through Arizona in the year since Roe was overturned, and protect all those seeking and providing necessary health care,” said Planned Parenthood Arizona CEO Brittany Fonteno, in an emailed statement. “Make no mistake, there is always more work to do – Arizonans are still living under a restrictive 15-week abortion ban, and anti-abortion extremists continue to threaten our fundamental right to bodily autonomy – but today sets us on a promising and welcome path.”

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Gloria Rebecca Gomez
Gloria Rebecca Gomez

Gloria Gomez joined the Arizona Mirror in August 2022. She graduated in 2022 with bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor.

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