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Appeals Court Rules Arkansas 12-Week Abortion Ban Unconstitutional

May 28, 2015 — The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday struck down part of an Arkansas law (Act 301) that banned abortions at 12 weeks of pregnancy if a fetal heartbeat is detectable, AP/ABC News reports (Reed, AP/ABC News, 5/27).

Background

In March 2014, a federal judge struck down part of Arkansas' law, ruling that restricting abortion based on fetal heartbeat rather than viability is unconstitutional. However, the judge left in place parts of the law that require physicians to perform an ultrasound and tell a woman if a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

The Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in April 2013 against the Arkansas law. The measure includes exceptions in cases of rape, incest, to save a woman's life or when the fetus has a fatal disorder.

In January 2015, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit heard the Arkansas case, as well as a case over the constitutionality of a North Dakota law (HB 1456) that banned abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/14). The appeals court has not yet issued a decision on the North Dakota measure.

Ruling Details

The 8th Circuit on Wednesday ruled that the Arkansas law's abortion ban is unconstitutional (AP/ABC News, 5/27).

The court said the ban violated the precedent set in a 1992 Supreme Court case that upheld the right of women to choose to have an abortion before fetal viability. The 8th Circuit wrote, "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" (Gonzales/Bailey, Reuters, 5/27).

Meanwhile, the 8th Circuit left in place provisions in the law that mandate that physicians tell a woman if a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

Reaction

Judd Deere, a spokesperson for the office of Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R), said that the AG's office was reviewing the ruling "and will evaluate how to proceed." Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said that the decision would allow physicians and their patients to make medical decisions, rather than politicians (AP/ABC News, 5/27).

CRR President and CEO Nancy Northup also praised the ruling, noting that the decision "affirms that safely and legally ending a pregnancy remains a protected constitutional right in this country." She added, "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" (Lyon, Arkansas News, 5/27).