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Federal judge blocks Arkansas abortion restrictions

Posted at 7:57 AM, Jul 24, 2019

A federal judge in Arkansas blocked abortion restrictions that were set to take effect on Wednesday, dealing a victory to opponents of the laws who argued they violated Supreme Court precedent, were not medically necessary and imposed an "enormous burden" on a woman's ability to access abortion.

The laws are the latest in a new wave sweeping across the country from emboldened states attempting to restrict access to abortion. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to take up a similar case out of Louisiana for next term.

District Court Judge Kristine Baker of the Eastern District of Arkansas issued a temporary injunction late Tuesday night concluding that the laws "cause ongoing and imminent irreparable harm" to patients. The judge held that the state "has no interest in enforcing laws that are unconstitutional" and that she would block the state from enforcing the laws while the legal challenges play out.

Three different provisions were at issue. One effectively barred abortions starting at 18 weeks of pregnancy. Baker held that because the provision "prohibits nearly all abortions before viability," it is unconstitutional under court precedent.

Another barred providers from performing an abortion if the woman's decision to terminate was based on a diagnosis that the fetus has Down syndrome. The judge ruled the law "is over-inclusive and under-inclusive because it prohibits nearly all pre-viability abortion based on Down syndrome when there is no record evidence that the Arkansas legislature has availed itself of alternative, less burdensome means to achieve the State's asserted interest through regulations that do not unconstitutionally prohibit a woman's right to choose but instead are aimed at ensuring a thoughtful and informed choice."

A third required providers to be certified in obstetrics and gynecology, a provision Baker said "provides no discernible medical benefit in the light of the realities of abortion care, training, and practice in Arkansas and across the county." She noted that had the provision gone forward, it would have left the state with no surgical abortion provider.

"In recent years, Arkansas has engaged in a targeted campaign against abortion care and the women who need it, enacting more than 25 laws aimed at obstructing and interfering with a woman's access to abortion care in the State, including at least 12 enacted in 2019 alone," lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood argued in court papers on behalf of the Little Rock Family Planning Services clinic.

Arkansas defended the laws, calling them "common sense" regulations. "Each regulation benefits society, mothers, and the medical profession in a myriad of ways while imposing no real (or legally cognizable) burden on abortion access," Leslie Rutledge, Arkansas' attorney general, argued in court papers.

Holly Dickson, legal director and interim executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said her group was "relieved."

"Personal medical decisions are just that -- personal -- and politicians have no business barging into people's private decisions, shutting down clinics and blocking people from care that they need," she said.