A federal appeals court this week struck down an Arkansas law that banned abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy, upholding a lower court’s decision last year that had blocked the law.
Act 301, also known as the “Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act” banned abortions after 12 weeks or if a fetal heartbeat has been detected before 12 weeks. The law only allowed for narrow exceptions in cases of incest, rape and those that involve a “lethal fetal disorder.”
In a decision issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban violates a woman’s constitutional right to choose by cutting off legal access to abortion well before the point of fetal viability, which is typically around 24 weeks. The judges cited more than four decades of U.S. Supreme Court precedent — first in Roe v. Wade and again in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — affirming that pre-viability abortion bans are unconstitutional.
“By banning abortions after 12 weeks’ gestation, the act prohibits women from making the ultimate decision to terminate a pregnancy at a point before viability,” the court wrote. “Because the state made no attempt to refute the plaintiffs’ assertions of fact, the district court’s summary judgment order must be affirmed.”
The Arkansas law, considered among the most extreme abortion bans in the country, was put on hold in 2014 after a federal district court ruled that the 12-week ban “impermissibly infringes a woman’s Fourteenth Amendment right to elect to terminate a pregnancy before viability” of the fetus. This week’s ruling upholds that decision and permanently blocks the law from taking effect.
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which co-filed the initial 2013 suit on behalf of two physicians in Little Rock, said the ruling “affirms that safely and legally ending a pregnancy remains a protected constitutional right in this country.”
But, she added, “women should not have to run to court in state after state, year after year to protect their constitutional rights from these politically motivated attacks. The Constitution and the courts are clear: A woman’s right to decide for herself whether to continue or safely and legally end a pregnancy does not change depending on what state she happens to live in.”
The Arkansas law is among a barrage of new restrictions on abortions passed by conservative lawmakers at the state and federal level in recent years. That trend has continued into 2015, with Republicans introducing an average of four new abortion restrictions a day since the start of the year, including many provisions roundly condemned by the medical experts, such as measures that place arbitrary time limits on abortion (like the Arkansas ban) as well as bills seeking to impose targeted regulations on abortion providers (or TRAP laws).
North Dakota passed the most extreme abortion restriction in the country, banning abortions after six weeks — a point at which most women don’t even know they’re pregnant yet. That provision was struck down by a federal judge in a case now pending on appeal.
Twelve states – including Arkansas – have enacted 20-week abortion restrictions. And two weeks ago, Congress passed a bill that would ban all abortions nationwide after 20 weeks. The vote was 242 to 184. That bill is based on the scientifically inaccurate claim that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks of pregnancy
It is unclear when, or if, the Senate will take up the measure. In the Arkansas case, the 12-week ban was passed after lawmakers overrode the veto of Gov. Mike Beebe.