Judge again halts '17 abortion laws

Ruling puts Acts 45, 1018, 733, 603on hold as legal challenges proceed

Four abortion laws passed in 2017 that are the subject of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas on behalf of abortion providers in the state have been placed on hold once again following a ruling this week by U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker.

Baker granted an injunction in 2017 that prevented the legislation from taking effect and since that time, the laws have been caught in a protracted legal fight as to whether they are constitutional.

Last August the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Baker's 2017 injunction, asking her to use a different legal standard to review any request to keep the state's laws from taking effect. In December, the 8th Circuit declined to reconsider its decision to vacate Baker's preliminary injunction, which cleared the way for the laws to go into effect on Dec. 22.

On Dec. 22, Baker issued a temporary restraining order blocking the laws from taking effect until Jan. 5, at which time she issued the preliminary injunction in a 253-page order that was filed at the end of the day Tuesday. The injunction is to stay in effect until further orders from the court are issued.

The four abortion laws in question are Acts 45, 1018, 733 and 603 of 2017.

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

Proponents of the laws say they are necessary regulations enacted by the Legislature, while those against them argue they place undue burdens on women seeking to exercise a constitutionally protected right.

Stephanie Sharp, a spokeswoman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said in a statement that Rutledge was disappointed with Baker's decision.

"Those regulations protect unborn girls from systematic discrimination, protect children from predators and sex traffickers, require the respectful treatment of human remains, and prohibit a particularly barbaric and inhumane late-term abortion practice," Sharp said. "Just months ago, the Eighth Circuit overturned Judge Baker's nearly identical order in this case, and we are confident that the Eighth Circuit will do so again."

A statement issued by the ACLU of Arkansas hailed the decision as a critical victory for abortion access in Arkansas.

"This order will ensure that essential reproductive health care services will remain available in Arkansas," said Ruth Harlow, senior staff attorney in the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. "The laws blocked by the court do nothing but place roadblock after roadblock in front of patients, in violation of their constitutionally protected rights. Arkansas politicians may continue this ruthless attack on abortion, but we will see them in court every time."

Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, expressed relief that implementation of the laws will continue to be blocked while the lawsuit continues to wind through the legal process and she vowed that efforts to block the laws from taking effect will continue.

"Arkansas legislators took an oath to protect people's constitutional rights -- not trample on them with harmful dictates and restrictions," Dickson said in a statement. "We're relieved the court will continue to block these unconstitutional laws while we keep fighting to have them struck down for good."

Information for this story was provided by Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.