Court blocks expansion of abortion ban

The Arizona law would prohibit abortions starting at 20 weeks’ gestation except for medical emergencies.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted Aug. 20, 2012

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An Arizona appeals court has blocked a landmark state law that bars abortions for women starting at 20 weeks of pregnancy. A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Aug. 1 temporarily halted the measure from taking effect, just days after a federal judge upheld the law.

The appeals ruling is the latest in the legal battles between states and abortion-rights advocates over greater restrictions that recently have been placed on the procedure.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, a national abortion-rights advocacy group, called the Arizona decision “a vital reaffirmation of the constitutional protections for reproductive rights that have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 40 years” since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

“We have fought to keep all medical options, including abortion, available to every woman facing devastating complications in her pregnancy, and [with this decision], we have won a critical victory,” Nancy Northup, the center’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer defended the law, expressing confidence that the measure eventually will stand.

The “decision to enjoin the law is disappointing but not entirely surprising,” Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Brewer’s office, said in an email. “Gov. Brewer remains confident the law will ultimately be upheld as constitutional.”

The 20-week abortion ban, signed by Brewer in April, has drawn criticism because it starts prohibiting abortions before a fetus is considered medically viable. Previously, the state banned abortions at viability, which experts generally have set at around 24 weeks. The new law criminalizes all abortions starting at 20 weeks of pregnancy unless the woman experiences a life-threatening emergency.

The Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state in July, claiming that the previability abortion ban is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court previously had prevented states from barring abortions before the point at which fetuses can survive outside the womb. Three physicians who treat women with high-risk pregnancies joined the suit as plaintiffs.

Brewer argues that the law improves upon informed-consent regulations for women seeking such procedures, while protecting women and fetuses.

“The Mother’s Health and Safety Act imposes common-sense restrictions to prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, knowing that health risks to the mother increase with time, and the unborn child will feel pain at this age,” Brewer said in a statement.

On July 30, a U.S. district court judge in Phoenix declined to block the law from being enforced, saying the measure did not impose an unfair burden on women. On Aug. 1, a day before the measure was set to go into effect, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel granted an emergency injunction against the law. The injunction will remain in place while the court examines the merits of the case.

Laws define pregnancy differently

Besides Arizona, eight other states have similar abortion time-frame restrictions — Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma and, most recently, Louisiana. The eight make it illegal for women to undergo an abortion starting at 20 weeks post-fertilization, or 22 weeks from a woman’s last menstrual period. The Arizona law, however, prevents abortions starting at 20 weeks from a woman’s last period, two weeks earlier than the other state laws.

The ACLU calls the Arizona law the most extreme abortion ban in the nation, noting that the prohibition contains no exceptions for fetuses that will not survive birth.

“We are relieved that the court blocked this dangerous ban and that women in Arizona will continue to be able to get safe, appropriate medical care,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an ACLU staff attorney. “Abortion is a serious, personal decision that should be made by a woman, her family and her doctor — not by politicians.”

At this article’s deadline, messages left with the Arizona attorney general’s office had not been returned.

Along with Arizona, legal challenges over abortion restrictions in Kansas, Mississippi and South Dakota are ongoing.

In the Kansas case, a judge on Aug. 3 refused to dismiss a lawsuit challenging tighter licensing requirements for physicians who perform abortions. The suit, filed in June by two ob-gyns, says the new law effectively is an attempt to outlaw abortions in the state by making it too difficult for physicians to obtain licenses. The law remains blocked by an injunction.

Meanwhile, a Mississippi law requiring that a physician providing abortions be a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist with admitting privileges at a local hospital will move forward, but with restrictions. A Mississippi judge ruled July 11 that the law can take effect but that doctors cannot be subject to criminal or civil penalties for operating without privileges during the administrative process to obtain them. Opponents say the law could close the only clinic in the state that offers abortion services.

In South Dakota, physicians are required to tell women seeking abortions that the procedure causes an increased risk of suicide, according to a new law. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July upheld the provision, saying that informing women of suicide risks is neither an undue burden on abortion rights nor a violation of physicians’ free speech.

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