Abortion providers slowly return to operation, despite legal uncertainty
Abortion providers at Planned Parenthood Arizona began offering abortions again at its Tucson facility this week, two months after it suspended services in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June decision that revoked the right to an abortion.
It is one of a handful of clinics in the state that have resumed abortion services even though Arizona law is unsettled after the court’s ruling, which could leave providers open to prosecution down the road.
Abortion opponents called the resumption of services “unfortunate,” but clinic officials said they are “not backing down” despite the legal uncertainty.
“I think the new reality is that there will always be some degree of fear at providing care, but I know at the end of the day that these services are absolutely central for the well-being of my patients,” said Dr. Jill Gibson, medical director for Planned Parenthood Arizona.
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At least four other clinics in the state have resumed abortions: Desert Star Family Planning, Camelback Family Planning, and Family Planning Associates Medical Group, all in Phoenix, and Choices Women’s Center in Tempe. Calls to those clinics Wednesday confirmed the service, but officials were not available to be interviewed.
All providers in the state put abortion services on hold after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Except for Planned Parenthood, which began accepting patients again Monday, it was unclear when the others resumed services.
But the move appears to take advantage of a window before Sept. 20, when a Pima County Superior Court judge is expected to rule on which of several Arizona abortion laws is in effect.
Abortion opponents were dismayed by the resumption of abortions but said they believe Pima Superior Court Judge Kellie Johnson will end the practice for good when she hands down her ruling next month.
“We are confident the court will lift the injunction, which will lead to the protection of unborn babies and their mothers throughout the state,” Center for Arizona Policy President Cathi Herrod said in a statement Wednesday.
The injunction she is referring to was issued in 1973 to block the state’s abortion law at the time – a 1901 statute that makes it a crime to perform or assist in an abortion except in the case of undefined medical emergency for the woman. That injunction was issued after the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that there was a constitutional right to an abortion.
But the court reversed itself this summer, ruling on June 24 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that Roe “was egregiously wrong from the start” and that abortion decisions should be left to state legislatures.
In anticipation of that ruling, some states passed trigger laws that enacted abortion bans once Roe was overturned. Arizona was not one of those states. Instead, it enacted a law this spring that would have banned abortions after 15 weeks. That law is scheduled to take effect on Sept. 24.
After first saying the 15-week ban would take precedence, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich reversed course and said in late June that he would seek to have the injunction on the 1901 law lifted, making a total abortion ban the law in the state.
But Planned Parenthood, backed by Pima County Attorney Laura Conover, argued to Judge Johnson at an Aug. 19 hearing that lifting the injunction would upend nearly 50 years of state law that regulated abortion as a “legal, medical procedure.” They called on the judge to “harmonize” those laws to avoid confusion and arbitrary enforcement.
Johnson said she would consider the case for the next month before issuing a decision, which Gibson said Planned Parenthood saw as “our opportunity to get back into this really important work.”
“We have sat with thousands of patients over the years, we recognize the real-life need and real-life impact of abortion services,” she said.
Tucson is just one of four Planned Parenthood clinics in Arizona, and it was selected because it had staff readily available, with about 10 doctors working there, Gibson said. The other clinics – in Flagstaff, Tempe and Glendale – are currently providing services like OB-GYN care, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and more. But Gibson said they hope to resume abortion services in all four eventually.
She said Planned Parenthood Arizona has seen a steady uptick in abortion appointments since resuming the service at the Tucson clinic.
“When I was there providing on Monday it was just so upbeat and positive,” Gibson said. “I think we’re all just feeling really reassured and really excited that we’re able to do this empowering work again.”