Judge Blocks Arizona Law That Grants ‘Personhood’ to Unborn Children

A judge in Arizona on July 11 temporarily blocked a “personhood” law in the state that provides legal rights to unborn children.

The statute, A.R.S. § 1-219, says that Arizona laws “shall be interpreted and construed to acknowledge, on behalf of an unborn child at every stage of development, all rights, privileges and immunities available to other persons, citizens and residents of this state, subject only to the Constitution of the United States and decisional interpretations thereof by the United States Supreme Court.”

It was passed in April 2021 as part of a multi-pronged bill, SB 1457 (pdf), that bans medical providers from performing an abortion if they know that it was being done because of an unborn child’s genetic abnormality.

‘Intolerably Vague’

U.S. District Judge Douglas Rayes said that the statute, which he referred to as the Interpretation Policy, is “intolerably vague” because it is “entirely unclear what it means to construe and interpret Arizona law to ‘acknowledge’ the equal rights of the unborn.”

“When the punitive and regulatory weight of the entire Arizona code is involved, Plaintiffs should not have to guess at whether their conduct is on the right or the wrong side of the law,” the judge wrote in his ruling on July 11 (pdf).

He also said it is “entirely unclear how to reconcile the Interpretation Policy with Arizona’s existing laws permitting and regulating abortion.”

“At present, the precise legal status of abortion in Arizona is murky,” Rayes wrote, noting that there are currently three different provisions in Arizona law: one that does not allow abortions of a “viable fetus;” a 1901 law that prohibits abortions at large unless necessary to save the woman’s life; and a new law to take effect in September 2022 that prohibits abortions after 15 weeks, barring any medical emergencies.

The latter two laws took effect after a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which had largely enabled abortions across the United States up to 24 weeks of pregnancy for nearly five decades.

Rayes wrote in his ruling, “Because of its vagueness, the Interpretation Policy deprives Plaintiffs of their Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights.”

The ruling means that the personhood statute cannot be used to ban otherwise-legal abortions in the state.

Case Reconsidered After Roe Overturned

Rayes had refused to block the statute last year after abortion providers and advocacy groups challenged it in August 2021 (pdf). But on June 25, after Roe was overturned, the abortion providers filed a new motion to reconsider the case.

They argued that providers fear they could be charged with child abuse, assault, or other crimes, and that the law was too vague. There is also concern of civil and regulatory action.

Rayes said that the Supreme Court’s ruling that overturned Roe “increases the risk that the Interpretation Policy could be applied in a manner detrimental to Plaintiffs’ otherwise lawful conduct.”

Jessica Sklarsky, a lawyer at the Center for Reproductive Rights who argued the case, said that the court “made the right decision today by blocking this law from being used to create an unthinkably extreme abortion ban.”

An Arizona attorney general’s office spokesperson said they are focused on “bringing clarity to the law for Arizonans.”

“Today’s ruling was based on an interpretation of Arizona law that our office did not agree with, and we are carefully considering our next steps,” spokesperson Brittni Thomason said in an email to The Associated Press.

The case is Isaacson et al v. Brnovich et al, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona, No. 2:21-cv-01417.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.