UPDATE, April 25, 11: 14 a.m.: Republican Debbie Lesko won Tuesday’s special election, beating Democrat Hiral Tipirneni by five points. President Trump in 2016 won Arizona’s 8th Congressional District by 21 points.
Trent Franks, before resigning in scandal, spent roughly 14 years using his seat representing Arizona’s 8th Congressional District to push extreme positions, including his hardline stance against reproductive rights.
A much different kind of lawmaker hopes to take his seat this month. Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a pro-choice doctor, says on her campaign site that she “fervently believe[s] our elected representatives should support policies reflecting clearly established women’s reproductive health rights.” Her platform charges “progressives and conservatives” should “work together” on the issue, and calls for abortion care to “stay safe, legal, and rare.”
“Of course, avoiding an unwanted pregnancy is the BEST way to reduce the number of terminations,” says Tipirneni’s website. “Data has definitively shown that abortion rates drop when there is simple access to contraception and sex-education. We should have comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education in the classroom and ensure unhindered access to effective contraception.”
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Shauna Trinidad, a board chairperson with NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona, told Rewire.News that working to elect Tipirneni was “extremely important,” pointing to anti-choice legislation passed recently in Arizona as evidence of what can be done by lawmakers who oppose abortion rights.
“Reproductive rights have been chiseled away at in recent years, with the passage of various Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws and the recent signing of SB 1394 in Arizona,” she said, referring to a measure signed into law this month that will require those seeking abortions to explain why they are having one. “Electing pro-choice officials to represent us is vital as we work towards guaranteeing every person the right to make their own decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices.” Trinidad continued.
EMILY’s List, an organization that works to elect Democratic pro-choice women to office, endorsed Tipirneni in April but did not mention the candidate’s views on reproductive rights in its announcement, instead saying she would “be a strong advocate for working families” and that she would be “dedicated to expanding all Americans’ access to quality, affordable health care.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America had stronger words in its endorsement, which came a week before the election. “After spending more than a decade as an emergency room physician, Dr. Tipirneni understands better than anyone the importance of protecting a woman’s right to essential health care and the ability to make her own medical decisions,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement.
The endorsement came with a promise from Tipereni to “fiercely protect women’s reproductive health rights.”
Tipirneni will need to win over voters in a district where the odds appear stacked against her. President Trump in 2016 carried the district by roughly 20 percentage points, according to CNN, and “Republicans hold a voter registration advantage of nearly 80,000” there. The seat is rated as “likely Republican” by Roll Call’s Inside Elections project, having only recently shifted from being “solid Republican.”
And Republicans have a candidate who, like Franks, is staunch in her opposition to reproductive rights. Former state Sen. Debbie Lesko sponsored several pieces of anti-choice legislation, including efforts to defund Planned Parenthood—a perennial goal of congressional Republicans.
Lesko has spoken out against using fetal tissue from abortions in research when related legislation in the state was up for a vote in 2016. “The truth is, is that no one with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s (diseases) has been cured from using aborted fetal tissue research,” she said according to the Arizona Capitol Times, though fetal tissue research has led to groundbreaking medical breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine and could lead to innovation in treating the same diseases Lekso noted.
In 2014, Lesko introduced a measure disingenuously named the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” which allowed for surprise inspections of abortion clinics purportedly to keep women safe—though abortion care is safe and highly regulated.
When the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, guaranteed health insurance coverage of contraception without a co-pay, Lesko authored legislation later signed into law to undermine the law if an employer claimed to have religious objections to workers using birth control. As the State Press reported at the time, Lesko’s measure would have permitted “employers to ask their employees for proof of medical prescription if they seek contraceptives for non-reproductive purposes, such as hormone control or acne treatment.”
“I personally don’t have a moral objection to contraceptives, but I respect the people that do,” Lesko said at the time, according to CNN.
Lesko in 2011 introduced HB 2384, a law that sought to exclude organizations that “promote” or refer for abortions from being eligible for the state’s Working Poor Tax Credit Program. The Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the ACLU sued the state to stop the law, and the state eventually gave up on efforts to defend it.
When speaking during a committee hearing in favor of the legislation, Lekso suggested her work to restrict abortion was her life’s purpose: “I believe God has put me here for a reason,” she said. “And I truly believe that one of the purposes that I have been put in this position is to protect the lives of innocent children.”
Lesko on her website says that she is “so proud of [her] record in the legislature that upheld the sanctity of life and protected the unborn.” It goes on to detail her belief that “life begins at conception,” language in-line with so-called personhood rhetoric, which could criminalize abortion and many forms of contraception if put into law, and a promise not to allow taxpayer funding to pay for abortions (though taxpayer funding is already blocked from doing so thanks to the Hyde Amendment).
These positions—and the involvement of high-profile pro-choice endorsements of Tiperini’s campaign—have prompted anti-choice groups like National Right to Life to jump into the race. Lesko received an endorsement from the organization on Tuesday. The group in its endorsement pointed to the Republican’s support for legislation to restrict abortion at 20 weeks.
The Susan B. Anthony list had jumped into the race in January to back Lesko, also pointing to her stance on a 20-week ban.
The special election to replace Franks, who resigned in December after allegations of sexual misconduct, will be held April 24.