Arkansas Abortion-Limit Challenge Speeds National Fight

Two Arkansas doctors sued the state over a law restricting the availability of abortions after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in a complaint filed in Little Rock federal court, the latest in a series of challenges to a new set of abortion restrictions.

In the past several years, conservative state politicians have initiated a frontal assault on federal protections of abortion rights enshrined in U.S. Supreme Court precedent, with new laws passed from Idaho to North Dakota to Arkansas.

“This law is one of the most dangerous assaults on women’s health that we’ve seen in decades,” Rita Sklar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arkansas chapter, said in a statement yesterday announcing the filing. “We may not all agree about abortion, but we can all agree that this complex and personal decision should be made by a woman, her family and her doctor, not politicians.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction barring the law from taking effect while the suit proceeds. Arkansas is one of at least six U.S. states to be challenged in court for tightening abortion restrictions. It’s one of a handful to ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, around the time women commonly get ultrasounds to screen for fetal anomalies.

The Arkansas law “has no chance of surviving a careful constitutional challenge,” law professor Stephen Sheppard said. “You have to protect the rights of women, and this does not,” said Sheppard, who teaches constitutional law and is associate dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law.


Louis Jerry Edwards and Tom Tvedten, doctors who are affiliated with Little Rock Family Planning Services in the state capital, said in the complaint that the law violates the U.S. Constitution and requested a court order blocking enforcement of the measure.

The Arkansas statute, passed in March over Democratic Governor Mike Beebe’s veto, doesn’t take effect right away and follows another state law prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks.

Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said the state will fight the lawsuit.

Abortion statutes vary across the U.S., according to data from the Guttmacher Institute of New York, which promotes sexual and reproductive health. Thirty-nine states require a licensed physician to perform abortions, eight states restrict insurance coverage, 26 states have waiting periods, 38 states require parental involvement for a minor, 46 states allow individual health-care providers to refuse to participate, and 17 states require counseling, according to the institute.

North Dakota

North Dakota lawmakers voted on March 15 to ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, the narrowest window of any U.S. state, and to become the first to bar terminations sought because of genetic abnormalities. Governor Jack Dalrymple signed the legislation on March 26.

In December, a state-court judge in Atlanta blocked a Georgia law limiting the availability of midterm abortions. The same month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down laws that expanded rules for doctors prescribing pregnancy-ending drugs and required women seeking abortions to have ultrasound scans.

In March, the state petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review of that outcome, said Diane Clay, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

A federal appeals court is considering a challenge to an Arizona law making it a crime for doctors to perform abortions after 20 weeks.

Idaho Ban

In Idaho, a ban on abortions performed after 20 weeks was overturned on March 6 by a federal judge in light of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, and a 1992 ruling that says states cannot impose an undue burden or a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion.

In September a three-judge federal appeals panel in San Francisco upheld a lower court ruling barring an Idaho prosecutor from enforcing a state law criminalizing some abortions.

The Idaho law makes it a felony for a woman to purposely abort a pregnancy unless the procedure is performed in the first trimester and by a doctor. The state attorney general’s office has asked for a larger panel of judges to review the case.

States including Texas and Indiana have passed laws cutting funding to Planned Parenthood because the group performs abortions in addition to providing health services to women. Those measures have also been challenged in the courts. Mississippi’s last abortion clinic is suing the state over regulations that it said will force it to close.

‘A Choice’

“Women do have a choice -- up until the 12th week,” said Jerry Cox, executive director of the Arkansas Family Council in Little Rock. He said in a March 11 phone interview that women can also consider adoption or raising the child.

He said his group, with about 4,000 core supporters, helped modify the original bill to exempt possible birth defects and instances of rape, incest or medical threats to the life of the mother.

The case is Louis J. Edwards v. Joseph Beck, 13-cv-00224, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas (Little Rock).

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