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Judge extends abortion-law halt

Temporary block on Rx-procedure limits was to expire by Linda Satter | March 15, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.

A block on the enforcement of a new state law restricting medication abortions was extended Monday just before the scheduled expiration of the initial freeze on the law.

In a 70-page order filed shortly before the 5 p.m. expiration of a temporary restraining order that has been in effect since late December, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker extended her ban on the enforcement of Act 577 of 2015 until further notice.

Act 577, known as the Abortion-Inducing Drugs Safety Act, requires physicians performing abortions to follow a strict U.S. Food and Drug Administration protocol that Planned Parenthood contends is outdated and less safe than its protocol. The law also requires doctors performing abortions to contract with a physician who agrees to handle any complications and has admitting privileges at a designated hospital.

While supporters of the law say legislators enacted it to protect women from dangers of the "risky" procedure of aborting a fetus through the ingestion of abortion-inducing drugs, detractors say the law was designed to prevent abortion providers from offering the procedure at all. They note that the medical-privileges requirement has proved impossible to meet and that the protocol requirements aren't used by practicing abortion providers because they are seen as inferior to updated procedures.

The ruling was a win for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, which operates clinics in Little Rock and Fayetteville and sued the state in late December just before Act 577 was to take effect on Jan. 1. Because Baker allowed the case to proceed as a "facial challenge," as requested by Planned Parenthood, it is also considered a victory for other clinics or private physicians throughout the state that have provided or want to provide medication abortions, even though they weren't plaintiffs, and all women in the state who seek those abortions.

If Baker had sided with the state and said the case must proceed as an "as-applied" challenge, it would have applied only to the plaintiffs -- Planned Parenthood and one of its doctors, Stephanie Ho.

The injunction will hold until a trial resolves questions about the law's constitutionality or the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis overturns it in response to an expected appeal by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

"Act 577 was passed to help ensure that medication abortions are conducted in a safe, responsible manner and with appropriate protections for women," Judd Deere, a spokesman for Rutledge, said shortly after Baker's ruling was filed. "Attorney General Rutledge will fully defend this statute, and is confident that the 8th Circuit will eventually uphold this law."

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland issued a news release saying, "Today's decision means that women in Arkansas will continue to have access to safe, legal abortion for the duration of the lawsuit."

Similar legal challenges are being litigated in other states.

Planned Parenthood's lawsuit "asked the court to block a law that would end access to abortion at two out of the three abortion-providing health centers in the state if it went into effect," spokesman Angie Remington said. "The law would impose severe and medically unnecessary restrictions on medication abortion, a very safe method of abortion if used early in pregnancy."

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland provides only medication abortions. The only other clinic in the state that provides abortions is Little Rock Family Planning Services, which had agreed to provide only surgical abortions after the law was passed, but can provide either surgical or medication abortions. Bettina Brownstein, a Little Rock attorney who is representing Planned Parenthood, said there are likely other doctors in the state who provide medication abortions as well.

Remington provided a statement from Ho, who said, "It's a relief to know that as this case proceeds I can continue to provide the highest quality of health care to a woman who comes to Planned Parenthood for safe and legal abortion care. No one should get inferior, outdated and less effective care from their physician."

Suzanne de Baca, president and chief financial officer of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said, "We're please that today's decision allows women in Arkansas to, at least for the time being, continue to access safe, legal abortion care at Planned Parenthood."

She added, "Abortion is a normal and sometimes necessary part of women's health care. If it was your loved one making the personal and often complex decision to end a pregnancy, you would absolutely want them to have the very best care, and that is the kind of care that Planned Parenthood is committed to providing."

Baker heard arguments March 2 from attorneys for both sides on whether to issue a preliminary injunction. The attorneys reiterated arguments they had made in hundreds of pages of documents filed earlier, with affidavits from physicians included in the pleadings from both sides.

The state contends that the FDA protocol for administering the abortion-inducing drugs, which was approved in 2000, has been demonstrated through clinical trials as safe and effective for abortions through the 49th day of pregnancy. The state contends that Planned Parenthood wants to continue to sell abortion-inducing medication to patients through the ninth week of pregnancy even though the risks of medication abortion rise significantly after the seventh week.

They say any women who have complications from the Planned Parenthood protocol have to go to an emergency room, which isn't always equipped to handle the complications and causes a loss of "continuity of care.'

The plaintiffs say the state relies mostly on the claims of a doctor who is an anti-abortion activist and whose testimony has been discredited. The plaintiffs deny that medication abortion is risky, saying it "in fact is one of the safest procedures in modern medicine." They contend that by restricting women's access to medication abortions, the requirements of Act 577 would actually harm women.

Violations of Act 577 can result in severe criminal and civil penalties for anyone found to have knowingly or recklessly violated it.

Metro on 03/15/2016

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