Federal judge blocks Arkansas law that effectively bans medication abortion

She granted a 14-day temporary restraining order.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker halted enforcement of an Arkansas law that effectively bans medication abortion in the state through burdensome requirements that clinics can’t meet.

Baker allowed a 14-day temporary restraining order to take effect that would stop the enforcement of Act 577, which requires doctors who offer the abortion pill to have a contract with a backup provider with admitting privileges at a hospital. The law would mean only one clinic in the state would be able to offer abortion. Patients in northwestern Arkansas would have to make a 380-mile round trip to the a clinic in Little Rock, where they provide surgical abortions. 

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The law has been through a lengthy legal battle. It was originally passed in 2015. After Planned Parenthood of the Heartland brought a lawsuit challenging Act 577, Baker granted a restraining order. Last June, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted Baker’s injunction because Baker did not “make factual findings estimating the number of women burdened by the statute.”

One of the latest developments in the legal battle came on May 29 when the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not hear the case, Planned Parenthood of Arkansas v. Jegley, even though the lower court’s opinion did not correspond to the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision that struck down a similar abortion restriction in Texas.

Since the Court sent the case back to the district court, time ran out on the restraining order and clinics that had scheduled medication abortions had to tell patients they would not receive them. 

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Planned Parenthood hasn’t been able to find physicians to contract with its clinics, which Baker pointed out on Monday. She said that since physicians could encounter risks if they helped clinics, such as imperiling their safety and their income, these clinics may never be able to find doctors who could help them comply with the law, the Associated Press reported. Opponents of the law say that this is exactly the purpose of the law — to ban medication abortion — not concerns about safety, as pro-Act 577 state lawmakers and officials claim.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s spokesperson said Rutledge was “disappointed” in the decision and that “Judge Baker’s ruling allows Planned Parenthood and Little Rock Family Planning Clinic to administer medication abortions without the necessary safety net available for women who experience emergencies and complications.”

But emergencies and complications from abortion are far rarer than abortion opponents let on. One study released last week looked at national emergency room data from 2009 to 2013 and found that only 0.01 percent of all emergency department visits by women aged 15-49 were related to abortions. From the results of the study, the researchers concluded that “regulations on abortion are unlikely to have any impact on women’s health outcomes.”

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine analyzed data on abortion safety and found that medically unnecessary abortion-specific regulations are what create barriers to safe and effective care, and that the major abortion methods rarely result in serious complications.