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Lawsuit filed challenging Arkansas' 18-week abortion ban

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Abortion rights supporters on Wednesday challenged an Arkansas law banning the procedure 18 weeks into a woman's pregnancy and another requirement that they say would likely force the closure of the state's only surgical abortion clinic.

In all, the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood targets three abortion restrictions and asks a federal judge to block them before they take effect July 24. The abortion restrictions are among several approved by the majority-Republican Legislature this year. Arkansas currently bans abortion 20 weeks into a woman's pregnancy.

"Today, we're challenging three plainly unconstitutional laws that would completely outlaw abortions for many Arkansans and target health providers with restrictions that would push care even further out of reach," Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas' legal director, said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Planned Parenthood Great Plains and Little Rock Family Planning Services. Planned Parenthood operates facilities in Little Rock and Fayetteville that administer abortion-inducing medication but don't perform surgical abortions. Little Rock Family Planning performs surgical abortions. The plaintiffs also include a physician who administers abortion medication at Planned Parenthood's Fayetteville facility, and a physician who is also Little Rock Family Planning's medical director.

The lawsuit is challenging a requirement that physicians who perform abortions be board-certified or board-eligible in obstetrics and gynecology. Little Rock Family Planning "will almost certainly be forced to close" if the requirement takes effect, meaning no surgical abortions would be available in the state, the lawsuit says. One physician who assists the clinic meets the requirement, but he lives in California and can fly in to provide care only three days every other month.

Arkansas' 18-week ban , which Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law in March, includes exceptions for rape, incest and medical emergencies. The lawsuit argues the ban is unconstitutional and prohibits abortions from being performed before a fetus is viable.

Another law being challenged includes one prohibiting doctors from performing an abortion if it's solely being sought because the fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said she was reviewing the lawsuit to decide the appropriate next steps.

"As attorney general, it is my duty and honor to defend the sanctity of life and protect mothers and their unborn children," she said in a statement issued by her office. The lawsuit comes as abortion rights supporters are fighting restrictions in GOP-led states that they say are aimed at ending the procedure. The only abortion clinic in neighboring Missouri has lost its license to perform the procedure, though a judge has said the facility can continue operating through Friday. The clinic on Tuesday asked a state panel for an extension. Missouri would be the first state since 1974 — the year after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide — without a functioning abortion clinic if the facility closes.

Several states this year passed bans on abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, as early as six weeks. Alabama has gone even further, outlawing virtually all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. None of the bans has taken effect.

Arkansas has enacted dozens of abortion restrictions since Republicans won control of the state Legislature in 2012. A federal judge in 2017 blocked four Arkansas abortion restrictions , including a ban on a common second-trimester procedure, and that case is now pending before a federal appeals court.

"Arkansas politicians are trying to ban abortion one law at a time," said Dr. Brandon J. Hill, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. "Preventing qualified physicians from providing safe, legal abortion services goes against medical evidence and sound practice to push abortion out of reach for people across Arkansas."

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