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Judge blocks Arkansas' tough new abortion law

U.S. District Court via AP file

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright said Friday, May 17, that Arkansas' law probably wouldn't pass constitutional muster.

A federal judge barred Arkansas from implementing one of the nation's most restrictive abortion laws Friday, calling it "more than likely unconstitutional."

The law, which the Legislature enacted over Gov. Mike Beebe's veto in March, makes abortions illegal after only 12 weeks of pregnancy. It's scheduled to take effect in August.


At a hearing Friday in Little Rock, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright granted a temporary injunction sought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights, which argued that doctors who provide abortions would suffer "irreparable harm."

Wright said the 12-week standard criminalizes some abortions before the generally accepted medical standard of viability for a fetus, which is 24 weeks.

"The Supreme Court has consistently used viability as a standard with respect to any law that regulates abortion," Wright said. "This act defines viability as something viability is not."

Wright didn't rule on the constitutionality of the new law itself, dubbed the Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act (.pdf).

But in a clear signal of how she was leaning, she said the 12-week standard criminalizes some abortions before the generally accepted medical standard of viability for a fetus, which is 24 to 28 weeks, while "the Supreme Court has consistently used viability as a standard with respect to any law that regulates abortion."

"This act defines viability as something viability is not," she said.

Josh Mesker, a spokesman for the nonprofit Arkansas Family Council, told NBC News the ruling was "disappointing, but it's not unexpected."


Mesker said the ultimate aim is to get the law before the U.S. Supreme Court, where "we expect to prevail" in a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized most abortions across the U.S.

"It's not outside the realm of possibility for the current Supreme Court to readdress Roe v. Wade in a way that leans toward our position," he said.

Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, ridiculed the law as "an extreme example of how lawmakers around the country are trying to limit a woman's ability to make the best decision for herself and her family."

"These laws are designed with one purpose — to eliminate all access to abortion care," Camp said in a statement.

That was a reference to similar anti-abortion measures recently approved in North Dakota, Kansas and Mississippi. The North Dakota law, which was also passed in March, is the toughest in the U.S., banning abortions after only six weeks.

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In the Arkansas case, the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights are representing Tom Tvedten, medical director of Little Rock Family Planning Services, which provides abortions, and Louis J. Edwards, a gynecologist at the clinic.

In the suit, filed last month against the State Medical Board, they argue that the new law "presents physicians in Arkansas with an untenable choice: to face license revocation for continuing to provide abortion care in accordance with their best medical judgment, or to stop providing the critical care their patients seek."

Wright rejected the state's motion to dismiss the case Wednesday, citing Supreme Court rulings that Roe v. Wade drew a line saying abortions generally could be banned only upon a fetus' "attainment of viability."

Anticipating just this sort of legal wrangling, Beebe, a Democrat, vetoed the measure in March, saying that defending a "blatantly unconstitutional" law would be crushingly expensive for the state.

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