Lawsuit Challenges Ariz. 20-Week Abortion Ban

July 13, 2012 — A federal lawsuit filed on Thursday seeks to block a new Arizona law (HB 2036) that bans abortion beginning at 20 weeks after a woman's last period, the New York Times reports.

The suit was filed by three Arizona physicians, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union in U.S. District Court in Phoenix (Eckholm, New York Times, 7/12). It seeks a preliminary injunction or, if there is not enough time, a temporary restraining order against the law (Pitzl, Arizona Republic, 7/12).

Background on Law

The law, which is set to take effect on Aug. 2, would create the earliest limit for abortion in the country. It permits exceptions only when continuing a pregnancy would result in the woman's death or the "irreversible impairment of a major bodily function" (New York Times, 7/12).

Violating the law would lead to a misdemeanor charge, with a sentence of up to six months in prison. Additionally, physicians could have their medical licenses revoked or suspended or face other discipline for the state medical board (Arizona Republic, 7/12).


The suit argues that "[u]nder clearly established U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the State of Arizona cannot ban abortions prior to viability," adding, "With its narrowly defined medical-emergency exception, the ban also unconstitutionally endangers women's health" (Pettersson, Bloomberg Businessweek, 7/13).

Nancy Northup, president of CRR, said, "A woman has to be in a dire emergency to have an abortion" under the law. In testimony against the bill last spring, Paul Isaccson, a Phoenix gynecologist who is a plaintiff in the suit, noted that most women seeking later abortions do so because of severe fetal anomalies that typically cannot be diagnosed until after 20 weeks. Under the law, women would be forced to continue pregnancies when the fetus in not expected to survive, "often at substantial risks to themselves," he said (New York Times, 7/12).

Important Test

The Times notes that the suit could bring the first ruling on state abortion statutes that ban the procedure before viability. The pre-viability bans, adopted by eight other states, have emerged as "a prime tactic" for abortion-rights opponents.

Supporters of the laws contend the lower limits are needed because they claim fetuses can feel pain around 20 weeks of development, an assertion that is disputed by major medical societies. The Arizona law sets the limit two weeks earlier than the other states that have passed the so-called "fetal pain" measures, noted Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager with the Guttmacher Institute (New York Times, 7/12).