Court reverses Idaho 20-week abortion ban

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 11:05 AM

John Schneider, Phil Milford

An Idaho ban on abortions after 20 weeks was overturned the same day Arkansas lawmakers passed a more restrictive law that opponents vowed to fight, intensifying a renewed debate over reproductive rights that has involved at least 10 states in recent years.

Wednesday in Idaho, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill granted a mother’s request to strike down the state’s ban and denied a prosecutor’s request to dismiss her challenge. Winmill said the law was an unconstitutional obstacle to women’s rights. In Arkansas, a near-ban on the procedure from the 12th week of pregnancy onward was approved by legislators who overrode a veto by Gov. Mike Beebe, D. The American Civil Liberties Union pledged to seek to block the law in the next few weeks.

At least five other U.S. states have faced court challenges over laws tightening abortion restrictions in recent years. In December, a state judge in Atlanta blocked a Georgia law limiting the availability of mid-term abortions. That same month, Oklahoma’s supreme court struck down laws expanding rules for doctors prescribing pregnancy-ending drugs and requiring women seeking abortions to have ultrasound scans.

The ACLU said the Arkansas measure is the most restrictive since Guam tried to ban abortion in 1990.

“The ACLU will challenge this dangerous and unconstitutional law in court to put this private decision back in the hands of a woman and her family,” Elissa Berger, the civil liberties group’s advocacy and policy counsel, said in a statement on the ACLU website.

At least 10 states have sought to ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, around the time women commonly receive ultrasounds to screen for fetal anomalies. A federal appeals court in San Francisco is considering a challenge to an Arizona law making it a crime for doctors to perform abortions after 20 weeks.

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 contends will force it to close.

In the Idaho case, the judge cited the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. He also cited a 1992 decision in which the court found that while a woman’s right to an abortion isn’t absolute, states couldn’t impose an undue burden or a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion.

“The state’s clear disregard of this controlling supreme court precedent and its apparent determination to define viability in a manner specifically and repeatedly condemned by the supreme court evinces an intent to place an insurmountable obstacle in the path of women seeking non-therapeutic abortions,” Winmill wrote in the decision.

“An outright ban on abortions at or after 20 weeks’ gestation places, not just a substantial obstacle, but an absolute obstacle, in the path of women seeking such abortions,” he said.

Jennie Linn McCormack, an unemployed Idaho mother of three who became pregnant in 2010 while unmarried was charged under the state law after taking drugs bought off the Internet to abort her fetus. If convicted, she would have faced as long as five years in prison.

She sued to strike down the law, with the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco upholding a lower-court decision that allowed her to do so.

In Arkansas on Wednesday, the state’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 56-33 to override Beebe’s veto of its abortion bill, a day after the Republican-led Senate acted on the law that makes exceptions only in cases of rape, incest, to save the life of the mother and in case of lethal fetal disorders.

Beebe told lawmakers the measure was unconstitutional, the Associated Press reported. Supporters said that shouldn’t stop them from acting.

“Not the governor, nor anyone else other than the courts, can determine if something is constitutional or unconstitutional,” state Rep. Bruce Westerman, R, said in urging his colleagues to override Beebe’s veto, according to AP.

Stacey Hall, spokeswoman for Beebe, didn’t immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

State Sen. Bart Hester, R, a co-sponsor of the law, said he wasn’t sure it would survive a constitutional challenge.

“As legislators, we have to stand up for what the people of Arkansas want, and the people of Arkansas are overwhelmingly pro-life,” he said in a phone interview.

Nine other states have adopted abortion bans at about 20 weeks, said Elizabeth Nash, states issues manager at Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based reproductive-health research group. She said such bans are being challenged as violating the terms of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion until a fetus could survive outside the womb, generally at about 24 to 26 weeks.

_ With assistance from Karen Gullo in San Francisco, Andrew Harris in Chicago, Tom Schoenberg in Washington, Esme Deprez in New York, Mark Niquette in Columbus, Ohio, and Darrell Preston in Dallas.

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