Arizona, Dominican Republic both grapple with 19th century abortion laws


In Arizona, the state’s highest court is considering whether to restore a near-total abortion ban from 1864, and in the Dominican Republic, women are fighting against an all-out ban from 1884. 

The just 20-year difference separating the two laws was striking for Sen. Anna Hernandez, D-Phoenix, who traveled to the Caribbean country earlier this month to learn what awaits women in Arizona if access to abortions is cut off. 

“It put the stakes in stark contrast for me,” she told the Mirror in a Dec. 14 interview, adding: “We do not have to imagine what any type of restriction means for the people of Arizona.” 

The 1864 law, passed during Arizona’s territorial days, carries with it a mandatory 2 to 5 year prison sentence for doctors who perform an abortion for any reason other than saving the patient’s life. While it was briefly in place last year, after the fall of Roe v. Wade, the state appeals court decided instead to uphold a 2022 law that prohibits elective abortions beyond 15 weeks of gestation. But the ultimate supremacy of the laws is once again being litigated. In the Dominican Republic, all abortions are outlawed, and women, along with doctors, are criminalized for receiving them.

Demand for abortion care remains the same everywhere, no matter which laws women live under. A report from the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual health and reproductive rights research organization, found that the proportion of abortions that occur in countries with the most restrictive policies is the same as the proportion in countries that broadly legalize the procedure. What changes is the impact on the health and safety of women if their access is hindered.

In the Dominican Republic, nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned or unwanted, according to the country’s ministry of public health. And the harsh legal punishments for women who seek to resolve their undesired pregnancies lead to devastating consequences. 

During her visit to the Dominican Republic, Hernandez met Rosa Hernández, whose 16-year-old daughter Rosaura “Esperancita” died after doctors refused to grant her an abortion, despite her leukemia diagnosis. Proponents of the 1864 law in Arizona argued in court earlier this month that it strictly bans all abortions, except in life saving emergency cases. But, attorneys said, women who need cancer treatment don’t always qualify as having an emergent need. 

Jennifer Driver, the senior director of reproductive rights for SiX, a national organization advancing progressive policies across the country that took Hernandez and several other lawmakers to the Dominican Republic this year, said that the legal questions doctors in the Caribbean country grapple with parallel what doctors in Arizona and other restrictive states are beginning to face. 

“Doctors discussed how their hands were tied about the care they could provide,” she said. “That is the same exact message that we are hearing from doctors here — doctors who are having to check in with legal before they can provide health care, medical care to their patients.” 

Juliana, who also met with lawmakers in the Dominican Republic, shared the story of her older sister, who died at 31 years old and left behind two children after she developed sepsis. Despite visiting six hospitals, and being notified by one of the doctors that her fetus was nonviable and would likely die in utero, she was sent home each time with nothing more than pain medication. 

In Texas, doctors reported delaying the treatment of pregnancy complications out of fear of lawsuits, under a 6-week ban that empowers private citizens to file against them. And in Arizona, doctors are currently challenging a 2021 law forbidding abortions performed because of fetal genetic abnormalities, saying that the law’s vagueness forces them to second-guess their decisions to help patients. 

Ultimately, Driver told the Mirror, the only thing that abortion bans do is harm low income and disadvantaged people. Women with resources are able to seek care out of state, or even out of the country but women without similar help are left to endure unwanted pregnancies or take matters into their own hands. The Human Rights Watch reported that an estimated 25,000 women and girls are treated for miscarriage or abortion complications in the Dominican Republic each year. 

“What you have, both in the U.S. and in the Dominican Republic, is punishment for poverty, for people who do not have the means and the resources to get care,” Driver said. 

It’s not just in tragic outcomes that the Dominican Republic echoes Arizona’s threatened future outlook. Reproductive health care advocates in both regions share a passion for opening up access. In the Dominican Republic, women and progressive politicians are lobbying for exceptions to the total ban, including a right to an abortion if a woman has been the victim of rape or incest, or is facing life-threatening danger. And while the movement has been yearslong, it’s vocal and undeterred. In the Grand Canyon State, meanwhile, abortion rights groups joined together to put forth an initiative that could guarantee abortion access in the Arizona constitution

For Hernandez, a freshman lawmaker who has been a staunch supporter of reproductive rights and has helped campaign on behalf of the Arizona Abortion Access Act, the visit to the Dominican Republic only further fueled her commitment to continue the fight for abortion access. And while the Democrat and her party have, in recent years, faced an uphill battle in a Republican controlled legislature, acting mostly as an outspoken defense against anti-abortion laws, they’re looking forward to a change after the 2024 election. Arizona Democrats are counting on the abortion issue to mobilize voters across the state and deliver a legislative majority for the party. 

“I think that Republicans here are going to be very shocked and realize that they are on a losing side of a reproductive battle,”  Hernandez said. 

“The power really is in the states,” Driver added. “Congress is gridlocked, there’s not a lot the administration is doing and we have a conservative Supreme Court. The power is in the states.” 

And initial surveys indicate that Arizonans, no matter their political affiliation, support abortion access. A 2022 poll conducted by the nonpartisan research organization the Public Religious Institute, found that as much as 62% of Grand Canyon State residents agree that seeking an abortion should be legal.  

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