A federal judge Friday temporarily blocked a first-of-its-kind Arkansas law that would effectively have prevented most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy.
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright granted the motion for preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas and the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of two Little Rock abortion providers.
The ruling prevents the law from going into effect in August. The lawsuit on the law's constitutionality will proceed on the merits.
The law was defended by Arkansas Deputy Attorney General Colin Jorgensen, who argued that the 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act showed that state regulations of abortions can be constitutional.
However, ACLU attorney Bettina Brownstein said U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, say that states cannot block abortions of "non-viable fetuses," or those that cannot live outside the womb.
Arkansas' new abortion law permits abortions in some circumstances, but "it is still a ban," the judge ruled. " … A plain reading of the act itself shows that."
The new law, called the Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act, was passed this year with bipartisan support in the Republican-led legislature. Lawmakers overrode a veto by Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, who called the law "blatantly unconstitutional."
The law says that if a woman seeks an abortion at 12 weeks' gestation, the doctor must check for a fetal heartbeat. If a heartbeat is detected, the abortion may be performed only under certain circumstances. These include pregnancies due to rape or incest or that are endangering the life of the mother, or cases in which the fetus has a "highly lethal" disorder.
Arkansas lawmakers said in March that their new law "squares" with other state laws and the Roe v. Wade ruling, and should withstand court challenges.
"We have chosen here to utilize language from Roe v. Wade that says the states have an interest in protecting human lives, especially fetuses at approximately the end of the first trimester and the beginning of the second trimester," said Arkansas State Sen. Jason Rapert, a Republican. "That happens to be 12 weeks."
Arkansas lawmakers also passed a law that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks gestation. That law is not challenged in this case.
On Wednesday, Judge Wright rejected a petition from the state to dismiss the lawsuit. She told the parties Friday that she was looking for enough evidence to issue the preliminary injunction.
Abortion providers Dr. Louis Jerry Edwards and Dr. Tom Tvedten are suing Dr. Joseph M. Beck and other officials of the Arkansas State Medical Board because the board is responsible for licensing medical professionals.
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