A federal judge blocked three new abortion restrictions from taking effect in Arkansas on Wednesday, including a ban on abortion after 18 weeks of pregnancy and an additional measure that would likely force the state's only surgical abortion clinic to close.
The block is temporary and short, lasting only 14 days from when the order was issued. The laws, signed by Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March, were supposed to go into effect Wednesday. The restraining order gives US District Judge Kristine G. Baker more time to hear arguments from both sides before either issuing a more permanent block on the laws or letting them go into effect.
The 159-page order blocks these three laws: a prohibition on abortion after 18 weeks, with exceptions for pregnancy in the cases of rape, incest, and medical emergencies; a law that prohibits aborting a fetus because it was diagnosed with Down syndrome; and a law requiring doctors performing abortion in the state to be board-certified or board-eligible in obstetrics and gynecology.
The laws are being challenged by the ACLU of Arkansas on behalf of Planned Parenthood and Little Rock Family Planning Services, the state's only surgical abortion clinic. Planned Parenthood offers only medication-induced abortions at its Arkansas facilities.
The plaintiffs argue that the ban is unconstitutional because a fetus is not viable outside the womb at 18 weeks. They also contend that the other two laws will force women to travel across state lines to seek abortions, delaying the procedure until later in their pregnancy and putting them at greater risk.
A law already exists in Arkansas that requires anyone providing abortion to be a licensed physician, preventing trained nurse practitioners and medical assistants from performing the procedure. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge argued that this additional qualification makes the procedure more safe, but the plaintiffs argued it does nothing but make abortion less accessible in the state.
Little Rock Family Planning Services has one board-certified physician who performs abortions at the clinic, but he does not live locally and works at the clinic only a few days every other month.
Lori Williams, director of Little Rock Family Planning Services, said the clinic would be unable to find another physician with those certifications on such short notice and would likely have to shut down.
Little Rock Family Planning Services already serves as an abortion provider for women unable to obtain abortions in neighboring states like Mississippi and Tennessee, which also have significant abortion restrictions and only a few, overwhelmed clinics. Should the Arkansas clinic shutter, those clinics would find themselves with even more patients.
Based on these arguments, Baker found that “the threat of irreparable harm to plaintiffs, and the public interest, outweighs the immediate interests and potential injuries to the defendants,” meaning the state of Arkansas.
“We’re relieved that these bans and restrictions have been blocked from taking effect and we’re determined to see them struck down for good,” Holly Dickson, legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
The Arkansas attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment, but Rutledge made a statement to local ABC News affiliate KATV-TV on Wednesday, saying the order was “frustrating, but not unforeseen.”
“The action was only the initial step,” she continued, “and I anticipate further action in the near future in our defense of these laws that protect the life of mothers and their unborn children.”
The legal battle comes in the wake of a series of restrictive abortion laws passed over the past few months in Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Missouri. Many of these laws, especially the bans on abortion before the fetus can survive outside the womb, are not intended to go into law in their states but are bids to ultimately challenge Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court.