Federal Judge Blocks Ban on Nearly All Abortions in Arkansas

The law would have banned the procedure except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency.


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A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked Arkansas from enforcing a strict new law that would ban nearly all abortions, a decision that comes as many states with Republican-controlled legislatures are trying to force the issue before a newly reshaped Supreme Court.

Arkansas is one of several states that have passed abortion restrictions challenging the constitutional right to the procedure established in Roe v. Wade. Judges have temporarily blocked laws restricting abortions in states including Ohio, Arkansas and Texas.

If the Supreme Court overturned Roe, abortion would be likely to become illegal in 22 states. In May, justices agreed to hear a case concerning a Mississippi law in the court’s next term, giving the court’s conservative majority an opportunity to place new constraints on abortion rights.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker said that the Arkansas law, which would have banned abortions in all cases except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency, would cause “imminent irreparable harm” to doctors and their patients.

The law “is categorically unconstitutional, and plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are likely to succeed on the merits,” wrote Judge Baker, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

The decision, by the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Arkansas, was made in a case brought by Little Rock Family Planning Services, Planned Parenthood Great Plains and Dr. Janet Cathey, a gynecologist and obstetrician in Little Rock, who was representing her staff and her patients.

In May, they filed a complaint against state officials who are charged with enforcing criminal laws and medical licensing penalties, including prosecutors in Pulaski County, members of the Arkansas State Medical Board, and the secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office defended the state officials in the case. Amanda Priest, a spokeswoman for Ms. Rutledge, said the attorney general was “disappointed” by the decision and would review it “to consider the next appropriate step.”

The law, which Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, signed in March and was scheduled to take effect on July 28, states that a “person shall not purposely perform or attempt to perform an abortion except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency.”

The law defines “medical emergency” to mean “a condition in which an abortion is necessary to preserve the life of a pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.”

Under the law, a doctor who performed an abortion would have been punished with up to 10 years in prison or a fine of up to $100,000.

The language of the law explicitly calls on the Supreme Court to take up the issue, citing Roe and other cases that established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.

“It is time for the United States Supreme Court to redress and correct the grave injustice and the crime against humanity which is being perpetuated by its decisions in Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey,” the Arkansas law states.

The defendants in the case had argued that Roe was wrongly decided and that the law protects the public’s interest because it “addresses Arkansas’s legitimate interest from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting the life of the unborn human who may be born.”

Meagan Burrows, a staff attorney at the A.C.L.U. Reproductive Freedom Project and one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the law “would disproportionately harm people of color, people who live in rural areas, and people with low incomes.”

Judge Baker wrote in her ruling that Arkansas is the fifth poorest state in the country and that Black women die as a result of childbirth “at almost two times the rate of white women.”

The law, she wrote, would prohibit doctors from providing abortions “unless and until the patient’s condition deteriorates to such an extent that the very narrow ‘medical emergency’ exception is triggered.”

She wrote: “This would pose serious risk to the physical, mental, and emotional health of these patients.”

Ms. Burrows said that the court’s ruling “should serve as a stark reminder to anti-abortion politicians in Arkansas and other states that they cannot strip people of their right to make the deeply personal decision about whether to have an abortion or continue a pregnancy.”

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