Arizona Doctors Seek to Block Law Banning Some Abortions

The Center for Reproductive Rights urged a judge to block an Arizona law, set to take effect Aug. 2, that makes it a crime for physicians to perform abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

U.S. District Judge James Teilborg in Phoenix heard arguments today on a request by three doctors for an order preventing that part of the statute from being enforced while they seek a ruling that it’s preempted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The doctors are backed by lawyers at the reproductive rights group and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We are not here to finally resolve the case but to preserve the status quo while the case is being considered,” Janet Crepps, senior council for the New York-based reproductive rights group, said today. “This law bans abortion prior to viability, and the Supreme Court has said that states cannot ban abortions prior to viability.”

No fetus is viable in just 20 weeks and, under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade and subsequent cases, it is a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy before viability, according to the doctors’ request for a preliminary injunction.

“It is beyond the power of the state of Arizona to ban abortions prior to viability,” lawyers for the doctors said in a July 12 filing.

Teilborg didn’t say when he would issue a ruling.

Extreme Ban

The statute is the most extreme abortion ban in the nation, the ACLU said in a July 11 statement. It would force a physician to wait until a woman’s high-risk pregnancy deteriorates so far that her life is at risk or that she faces major medical damage, according to the statement.

“Approximately 70 percent of my patients seeking abortions at or after 20 weeks do so due to a serious or lethal fetal abnormality,” Dr. Paul Isaacson, one of the three Arizona obstetricians and gynecologists, said in the July 12 filing. “Typically, these patients have reached the decision to terminate the pregnancy after multiple consultations with specialists and/or loved ones.”

The Arizona law makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by as long as six months in prison, to perform an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, calculated from the “first day of the last menstrual period of the pregnant woman.”

Opposed to Delay

William Montgomery, the Maricopa County Attorney, said in his opposition to a delay on enforcement of the law that the state prohibition, with its exception for “peculiar medical situations,” is permitted by Roe v. Wade.

“The U.S. is one of a handful of nations that does not prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy,” Montgomery said. “Live-birth abortions are the direct and persistent result of this national policy.”

Maricopa is Arizona’s biggest county and includes Phoenix. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne and the Arizona Medical Board in a July 19 court filing deferred to Montgomery’s position. The state has a compelling interest in regulating abortion to protect women’s health, Montgomery said in a court filing.

“Don’t you think that considering the state’s interest in an unborn child,” such a law can be passed?, the judge, who was nominated by former President Bill Clinton, asked Crepps today.

“The Supreme Court has considered whether the state’s interest can overcome a woman’s right to an abortion prior to viability, and it has said these states’ interest cannot override a woman’s right to an abortion prior to viability,” Crepps responded.

New Restrictions

Other states have passed laws that put new restrictions on abortion providers. In Mississippi, as of July 1, all abortion-clinic physicians must have admitting privileges at a local hospital under a law passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Republican Governor Phil Bryant in April.

In Texas, Planned Parenthood is fighting a regulation that bars the state from contracting with entities affiliated with abortion providers. The Obama administration cut off $30 million in federal funds for the state women’s health program because of the ban, saying Texas can’t block federally approved organizations such as Planned Parenthood from participating in programs underwritten by Medicaid.

On July 16 Planned Parenthood sued Arizona in federal court to block implementation of a state measure signed into law in May that bars Medicaid funds for medical providers that perform abortions, according a court filing.

Single Voters

A survey released July 10 by Quinnipiac University showed that unmarried women favor President Barack Obama over presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney by a 2-1 ratio. Single voters are more focused on issues such as reproductive rights, said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the university polling institute.

Obama, a Democrat, is a longtime supporter of abortion rights. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, on July 10 reiterated his opposition to abortion during a campaign stop in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Yesterday, a South Dakota law requiring doctors to advise prospective abortion patients that they will face an increased risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts as a result of the procedure was ruled lawful the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis. The court reversed a 2-1 panel decision from last year in a case in which Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota argued that the law burdens both abortion rights and physicians’ free-speech rights.

Serious Condition

The vast majority of abortions take place in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and the majority of abortions performed after 20 weeks are done because either the mother’s health is at risk or because the fetus has been diagnosed with a serious or lethal medical condition, according to the Arizona physicians.

These conditions are often only diagnosed after 18 weeks, they said.

Barbara LaWall, the attorney for Pima County, Arizona, which includes Tucson, filed a response supporting a delay in enforcing the law that she said “is unquestionably a ban on some pre-viability abortions.”

“There is considerable risk that enforcement of H.B. 2036 may not only result in the deprivation of a constitutional right, for which there is no adequate remedy, but also cause the criminal prosecution of individuals who assist another in the exercise of that right,” she said.

The case is Isaacson v. Horne, 12-01501, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona (Phoenix).

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