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Supreme Court refuses for now to block Arkansas abortion restrictions

Supreme Court refuses for now to block Arkansas abortion restrictions
A U.S. flag flies at half-mast outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 30, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The Supreme Court has refused — for now — to block an Arkansas abortion law that could prevent most women there from ending their early pregnancies with medication.

The justices, without comment or dissent, refused to hear an appeal from the Planned Parenthood Federation, which said the state’s law, if put into effect, would leave most women without access to a doctor who can provide medication that will bring about an abortion.

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The case is not over, however. It returns now to a district court judge, who could put the law on hold again. And while the move was a setback for Planned Parenthood, the lack of dissents from the liberal justices suggests the court’s action was based more on procedure than substance.

The dispute almost certainly will return to the Supreme Court after the lower court judges rule on the constitutionality of the Arkansas law.

But Tuesday’s action shows again that the high court is not eager to take up disputes over abortion regulations.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court by a 5-3 vote struck down a Texas law that imposed strict regulations on abortion clinics that had caused most of them to close. The majority, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, concluded the Texas law imposed “an undue burden” on women seeking abortions under the guise of protecting their health and safety.

Lawyers for Planned Parenthood had hoped the high court would quickly block the Arkansas law because, they said, it is “strikingly similar” to the Texas measure.

In their appeal, they told the justices that the restriction on drug-induced abortions was “enacted supposedly to protect women’s health [but] is medically unnecessary. If allowed to take effect, it would make Arkansas the only state to effectively ban medication abortion, a common method of early abortion that has been safely used by over two million American women since its approval in 2000. It would also leave only one remaining abortion provider in the entire state of more than 53,000 square miles.”

At issue is a provision in a 2015 law that requires a doctor who prescribes or dispenses an “abortion-inducing drug shall have a signed contract with a physician who agrees to handle complications.”

State legislators said these contract relationships are needed to make sure women receive emergency care if they encounter complications, including excessive bleeding.

Abortion-rights advocates argued this legal restriction is unnecessary as a matter of medical safety. They said complications are rare, and in such circumstances, it is best for a patient to go immediately to an emergency room, not to seek out a second doctor who may be many miles away.

Further, Planned Parenthood’s lawyers say this restriction works to outlaw such abortions entirely. They say other physicians in the state have refused to enter into contracts with abortion providers. They said the law would force the closure of its abortion providers in Little Rock and Fayetteville, both of which rely on medication. A privately run facility in Little Rock would remain in business and provide surgical abortions.

Arkansas Atty. Gen. Leslie Rutledge urged the court to turn down the appeal. She said her state’s law differs from the Texas measure. It does not require abortion doctors to have “admitting privileges” at a nearby hospital, as Texas had required, but instead says they must have a working agreement with another doctor who can handle emergencies. She also said a high court review now would be premature.

On Tuesday, in response to the high court’s action, she urged the 8th Circuit Court to allow the state law to go into effect immediately.

Two years ago, a federal district judge had blocked the Arkansas law on the grounds it was obviously unconstitutional. However, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals set aside that ruling last year and told the district judge to look more closely at how many women would be affected if the law were to take effect.

Planned Parenthood opted to appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

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The justices sometimes spend weeks debating behind closed doors whether to hear a potentially significant case. The appeal in the Arkansas case — Planned Parenthood of Arkansas vs. Jegley — came before the justices late last week, and it was immediately turned down.

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