Judge blocks Arkansas from enforcing abortion ban during pandemic

Judge blocks Arkansas from enforcing abortion ban during pandemic

A federal judge in Arkansas blocked the state from enforcing a ban on abortions as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, joining a wave of rulings blocking similar attempts in other Republican-led states.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, an Obama appointee, granted the temporary restraining order Tuesday evening, writing that the plaintiff — an abortion clinic in Little Rock — is likely to succeed in its argument that the ban is unconstitutional.

"With this order, the court has ensured that essential, time-sensitive health care can continue, and rebuffed Arkansas’ attempts to restrict access to abortion," said Ruth Harlow, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Reproductive Freedom Project, which is representing Little Rock Family Planning Services.

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The Arkansas Department of Health earlier this month directed health facilities, including abortion clinics, to postpone nonemergency procedures to preserve personal protective equipment for the state's coronavirus response or face financial penalties or imprisonment.

While the department said the order wasn't intended to replace a physician's judgment, Little Rock Family Planning Services said it received a notice from the department stating that it was in violation of the directive.

The notice stated that the facility was found to be performing surgical abortions that are "not immediately necessary to protect the life or health of the patient" and ordered that all abortions be postponed until the directive is withdrawn.

In its request for a temporary restraining order, the ACLU argued the restrictions essentially prohibit most abortions before a baby can survive outside the womb, contradicting Supreme Court precedent set in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Similar bans have already been blocked by federal judges in Alabama, Ohio and Oklahoma. 

A ban on medication and surgical abortions in Texas — part of the governor's emergency order postponing elective procedures — has been the subject of fast-moving litigation in recent weeks. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed its ruling in Texas on Monday, allowing medication abortion to continue in the state.

However, most surgical abortions are still banned in the state under Texas's emergency order on elective surgeries. Advocates also filed a lawsuit against similar emergency bans in Louisiana and Tennessee this week.

Updated at 7:02 p.m.