Two federal decisions affect abortion clinics in Arkansas

Planned Parenthood supporters hold signs at a protest in downtown Denver, Colorado, U.S. February 11, 2017. Photo by Rick Wilking/Reuters

Just days before laws were set to severely limit already-scarce abortion services in Arkansas, a federal judge banned them from taking effect on Friday, in one of two federal case rulings on the subject. The other ruled in favor of anti-abortion advocates.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a preliminary injunction on four state laws: one that criminalizes doctors for performing the most common method used for second-trimester abortions, a procedure called dilation and extraction, another that requires input from the father or a woman's own parents on what to do with the remains, a third that would give tissue samples from minors to local law enforcement and a fourth that required abortion doctors to obtain extensive medical histories.

The first three were scheduled to take effect on Tuesday, and the fourth on January 1. The request for a preliminary injunction was issued by the local American Civil Liberties Union and also the nonprofit Center for Reproductive Rights. It was on behalf of an abortion doctor at Little Rock Family Planning Services – the only clinic that performs dilation and extraction in a state where 1.45 million women live.

In 2015, 638 women in Arkansas opted for this procedure, about 20 percent of the clinic's overall abortions. A lot of these clients are low-income and have a limited ability to take time off from work, which can make it challenging to plan procedures overall, especially within the first trimester, according to the 140-page ruling.

"If the [law] goes into effect, standard [surgical] abortions will no longer be performed in Arkansas… thereby rendering abortions essentially unavailable in the State of Arkansas starting at 14 weeks," Baker wrote. "In that case, 100 percent or all 638 of these women will experience a substantial obstacle to abortion."

While the surgical procedure law only applies to the single facility, the other three challenge the abilities of all three abortion clinics in the state. There are Planned Parenthood clinics in Little Rock and Fayetteville, but they only perform medication abortions, which allow women to take pills to terminate pregnancy up until 10 weeks.

Baker temporarily blocked these other laws – one of which required doctors to ask women if she knew the sex of the child and warn her that it is illegal to perform abortions based on sex selection. If the woman knew the sex, the doctor would also be required to obtain extensive medical history, which, especially in a small town, would be an extreme violation of confidentiality, Baker ruled.

"It will cause women to forgo abortion in Arkansas rather than risk disclosure to medical providers who they know oppose abortion or who are family friends or neighbors," Baker wrote.

Arkansas is already stricter than many other states on abortion, requiring that women attend counseling and then wait 48 hours before returning for a procedure. Abortion rights advocates say this places a burden on women who don't have support systems or need a car to drive long distances to the clinic.

In another ruling on Friday, this time pleasing anti-abortion advocates, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted an injunction that Baker had issued in 2015 to prohibit a law that could prevent all three facilities from offering medication abortions. Such abortions encompass more than 80 percent of the state's procedures.

The law that Baker blocked in 2015 requires doctors who prescribe them to have a contract with a physician at a hospital with admitting and surgical or gynecological privileges, who also agrees to tend to any complications in the rare event there are any.

The three-person panel unanimously on Friday sent the case, which was filed by Planned Parenthood, back to Baker, saying she had not determined how many women would be affected and that it was vacating her ruling.

Arkansas will be able to enforce the law in two or three weeks.

"This common sense law will help ensure that medication abortions are conducted in a safe, responsible manner and with appropriate protections for women," Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement.

But a lawyer who has represented abortion clinics in the state for 30 years and is helping with these cases told the NewsHour Weekend that Planned Parenthood could not find a doctor with those privileges. Attorney Bettina Brownstein said that such a doctor could face potential judgment at work for working with clinics that provide abortions.

"No doctor in Arkansas, or hardly anyone wants to come forward and represent [abortion clinics]," Brownstein said.

If the law takes effect, it's unlikely any of the three facilities will be able to abide by it, Brownstein said.

Arkansas is involved in two other suits over laws that would restrict the abilities of abortion clinics.

Brownstein said the clinics are fighting another state law that makes it easier to suspend their licenses by holding them to arbitrary health regulations, as well as one that would prevent Medicaid from covering health services. Medicaid, she said, does not pay for abortions.

She said despite a woman's legal right to decide whether she wants to have a baby, some legislatures in Arkansas, "are trying to ban abortion entirely."

"There are huge swaths of the state that are rural or poor. If you don't have money and even if you are near Little Rock it's real tough to get an abortion," she said.

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