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Christian conservatives wrestle with shifting GOP stance on Arizona abortion ban

Updated May 01, 2024 at 16:47 PM ET

PHOENIX — The vote to repeala near-total abortion ban in Arizona was closely watched Wednesday by some conservative voters who are struggling to reconcile political party loyalty with their firmly held religious beliefs.

In the wake of last month's Arizona Supreme Court ruling that upheld an 1864 abortion ban that makes no exceptions for rape or incest, some GOP candidates have sought to distance themselves from the decision.

On Wednesday, the Arizona Senate narrowly voted to repeal the Civil War-era ban, with two Republicans joining Senate Democrats. Last week the state's House passed a bill to repeal the law and Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs has promised to sign it after Senate approval.

Last month, former President Donald Trump called on Arizona state lawmakers to swiftly "remedy" the ruling. Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Kari Lake had also called for its repeal, stating that territorial law is "out of step with Arizonans."

That's a departure from two years ago, when she frequently lauded the law while campaigning for governor of Arizona in 2022.

Abortion rights opponents question who they can trust

"That's the struggle we're having right now is, who do we vote for?" said Luke Pierson, a pastor at Apologia Church in Mesa, Ariz. A large part of the church's ministry is focused on ending access to abortion. Pierson is also a co-founder of End Abortion Now, which describes itself as a national religious movement working to end access to abortions.

Luke Pierson, co-founder of End Abortion Now, which describes itself as a movement to end access to abortions, demonstrated outside of Arizona's statehouse on April 17 in Phoenix.
Ben Giles / KJZZ
/
KJZZ
Luke Pierson, co-founder of End Abortion Now, which describes itself as a movement to end access to abortions, demonstrated outside of Arizona's statehouse on April 17 in Phoenix.

He said abortion rights opponents are left wondering: "Who do we count on?"

A registered Republican, Pierson said he was ecstatic when news broke of the court's decision, though a little disappointed that Republican state legislators had amended the law to prevent pregnant women from being prosecuted for seeking abortions. The ban would still allow for doctors to receive two- to five-year sentences for providing abortion care. Arizona lawmakers lacked the votes to make Wednesday's vote on the repeal effective immediately so there's uncertainty about how long the ban can be enforced.

Many Christian evangelicals, like Pierson, reference biblical verses that call for the rescue of people being led to their death as a reason they oppose abortion rights today.

"Scripture calls us — Proverbs 24 says, the rescue of those being led to the slaughter. That's the preborn babies in their mothers' wombs," Pierson said at an anti-abortion rights rally at the Arizona Capitol last month. "And it's our position that it's our duty before God to rescue them."

For Republican voters like Pierson, there's no wiggle room on this issue. He didn't mince words when asked about Trump's recent comments on the ruling.

"I think he's being a coward," Pierson said. "I think that was like, the cowardice way to respond to that."

Pierson was also dismayed when Lake called on Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs — a Democrat Lake still denies losing to in the state's 2022 gubernatorial race despite a court rulingrejecting her claims of fraud — to work with state lawmakers and come up with an alternative to the near-total abortion ban.

"It was like she became a complete turncoat, and was like, here, Katie Hobbs, I need your help," Pierson said. "And I was going, Kari, what are you doing?"

When abortion is on the ballot, voters in states across the country have consistently affirmed the right to an abortion or rejected attempts to infringe that right.

Some Republicans seek to minimize political vulnerabilities

In an appearance on Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcast, Caroline Wren, a senior adviser to the Lake campaign, pointed to recent Republican losses in Alabama and Wisconsin as evidence that abortion access is a politically "winning issue on the left"-- though she critiques that "it's the only thing they have to run on."

"We do need to recognize what a problem this is," she said.

Lake's opposition to Arizona's near-total ban acknowledges that political reality. Immediately following the ruling, she issued a statement that it's "abundantly clear that the pre-statehood law is out of step with Arizonans," referring to the timing of when the law was created, nearly 50 years before Arizona became a state in 1912.

Asked last week what she'd say to Republican voters who call her a "coward," Lake said, "my goal is to save as many babies as possible."

"I believe that there should be exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of a mother. And unfortunately, that law does not have those exceptions," Lake added. "You can be pro-life and for exceptions. I know that not everybody who's pro-life is for exceptions. I am."

It's an approach that Sun City West Republican Barbara Schwisow says is born out of necessity.

"What our party leaders are trying to do is maintain the Republican Party," she said. "They are concerned about the annihilation of the Republican Party."

"I understand the game," she added while taking a break from an anti-abortion rights rally at the state Capitol last month. "I just don't have to play it. I'm not a politician. I don't have to walk this line between my values and what might work politically."

Pierson, too, says those Republicans are voting "according to how they think, what's gonna keep them in office."

"And we're saying, 'No, you should do the right thing before God, not be pragmatic, do the right thing, because this is what God calls you to do,'" he said.

In Pierson's view, candidates like Trump are going against God's calling.

Now Pierson's wonders if he, and conservative Christians like him, will even vote for Trump in November.

"He may have lost a lot of votes, of the Christians because of that stance he took," Pierson said.

But not voting for Trump in a swing state like Arizona could help lead President Biden to a reelection victory.

Down the ballot, Lake's race against U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., could help determine control of the U.S. Senate. And Republicans locally fear losing their slim one-vote majorities in the state Legislature.

Copyright 2024 KJZZ

Ben Giles
[Copyright 2024 KJZZ]