Laws on abortion again put on hold in Arkansas

A federal judge Tuesday again blocked the state from enforcing a package of abortion laws.

The laws, which place new regulations on abortion practices, took effect Tuesday morning after a yearslong legal fight, but, for now, those statutes are on hold after U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a two-week restraining order.

The ruling comes after the American Civil Liberties Union, representing abortion providers in Arkansas, asked Baker to block the restrictions. It is the latest order in the legal fight over abortion laws that the state Legislature passed in 2017.

"We're relieved these harmful and unconstitutional restrictions have once again been blocked by the courts," Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement. "These laws would decimate access to abortion in Arkansas at a time when families are already struggling to get care. It shouldn't take a court order to force Arkansas politicians to respect the basic human rights of the people they serve."

The restraining order that Baker issued Tuesday is in effect until Jan. 5, but the ACLU has already filed a request for a preliminary injunction, which would also block the state from enforcing the laws.

Baker had issued a similar order in 2017, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated her ruling, asking her to use a different legal standard to review any request to keep the state's laws from taking effect.

The four abortion laws in question are Acts 45, 1018, 733 and 603.

Act 45 bans dilation and evacuation, a common procedure for second-trimester abortions.

Act 1018 requires doctors to inform police if anyone 16 or younger gets an abortion.

Act 733 prohibits sex-selective abortions, and requires doctors to seek the medical records of any woman seeking an abortion who knows the sex of her fetus.

Act 603 regulates the disposal of fetal remains.

Banning the dilation and evacuation procedure is a point of contention in the abortion debate. Critics refer to it as "dismemberment abortion." Proponents say it's a safe and common procedure for second-trimester abortions.

In Arkansas, dilatation and evacuation was the only method used to end pregnancies after 12 weeks, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. The procedure accounted for 638 of 3,771 abortions in Arkansas in 2015.

"I am disappointed in Judge Baker's decision to again temporarily block Arkansas laws protecting young girls from predators and sex traffickers, protecting girls from sex-selective abortions, and prohibiting particularly barbaric abortion practices," said Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge in a statement. "Arkansas has repeatedly prevailed when it has appealed similar rulings by Judge Baker and will ultimately do so again."

In a court hearing via telephone Tuesday, attorneys for the ACLU and Rutledge's office argued about how the 8th Circuit's decision should guide a new ruling.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a concurrence earlier this year in an abortion case, June Medical Services v. Russo, saying courts should weigh whether a law places a "substantial obstacle" to abortion.

Ruth Harlow, an attorney with the ACLU, said if the laws had remained in force, eight women scheduled for abortion procedures in the next week in Arkansas would not be able to get them.

Vincent Wagner, a state attorney, argued that the plaintiffs -- Dr. Frederick Hopkins and Little Rock Family Planning Services -- were preventing those women from seeking abortion services because the plaintiffs did not want to comply with the new laws.

But in her decision, Baker said if the laws remained in effect it would be the women who are seeking abortions in Arkansas who would be "unduly burdened" by laws that are likely "unconstitutional."

The legal fight over the abortion laws dates back to 2017 when Baker issued her first preliminary injunction in the case. That order lasted until August when a three-judge panel with the 8th Circuit vacated Baker's order and remanded it back to her court.

Last week the 8th Circuit declined to reconsider its decision to vacate Baker's preliminary injunction, clearing the way for the laws to take effect this week.

The timing of the ACLU's request for a temporary restraining order Monday was a point of contention in court Tuesday with Wagner arguing that the plaintiffs waited until Monday to file their request.

Harlow, meanwhile, argued that they notified the state last week of their intention to file a request for a temporary restraining order.