KANSAS CITY, Mo. – State officials late Friday night won a temporary stay from the U.S. Supreme Court (search), blocking a federal judge's order requiring Missouri corrections officials to take an inmate to a St. Louis abortion clinic Saturday.
Justice Clarence Thomas (search), acting alone, granted the stay pending a further decision by himself or by the full court.
Thomas handles appeals from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search), which includes Missouri. He could lift the stay over the weekend, after reviewing more legal arguments.
It is not uncommon for the Supreme Court to issue temporary stays that give both sides in a case time to file more arguments.
"We will be informing our clients, the Department of Corrections, of this stay," said Scott Holste, a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon (search). "We will continue to defend the state on this matter."
Earlier Friday, a federal appeals court refused to issue a stay on U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple's (search) ruling that the Department of Corrections' refusal to pay to take the woman to the clinic for an abortion was illegal.
Whipple also refused to delay his order until the 8th Circuit could hear the state's appeal of his original ruling, which he made on Thursday.
"The law is now well established that federal courts have declared that a woman has a constitutional right to choose to terminate a pregnancy rather than carry the pregnancy to term," Whipple said in his earlier ruling. "While a state may express its public policy, it may not create undue burdens upon a woman's exercise of her right to choose, and may not prohibit the exercise of that right or place substantial obstacles in the way of the exercise of that right."
He ruled that corrections officials must take the woman, identified in court documents only as "Jane Roe," to have the abortion on Saturday.
"The court will not tolerate further defiance of its orders," he wrote.
The decision brought an angry response from Gov. Matt Blunt (search), who signaled that the state will likely be forced to comply or face contempt charges.
"This is an outrageous order from an activist federal judge that offends Missouri values," Blunt said in a written statement. "I call on the attorney general to vigorously pursue all available legal options to overturn this offensive federal mandate. It is time for him to aggressively argue that this is an inappropriate use of taxpayer resources and contrary to state law."
Whipple had earlier ordered the procedure done on Friday, but officials appealed his decision, saying the policy is reasonable because of the potential financial and logistical headaches of transporting inmates outside the prisons for procedures the officials said are not medically necessary.
They estimated that taking the woman to a clinic would cost $350 for two guards to go with her along with fuel costs. Besides the security risk to the guards while outside the prison, officials said they would have to either pay to replace those guards or maintain the prison with lower security.
"It is not the prison that has imposed the burden, but the prisoner's violation of the law that resulted in her incarceration that has imposed the burden," Nixon's office said in its request that Whipple suspend his decision pending an appeal.
The woman, described as being in her 20s, is an inmate at the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia (search), 81 miles northwest of St. Louis.
She is between 16 and 17 weeks pregnant. In her court filing, she said she discovered she was pregnant shortly after being arrested in California in July on a Missouri parole violation. She said she tried to get an abortion in California but was transferred back to Missouri before it could be performed.
Once in Missouri, she was told of the corrections department's policy.
Corrections spokesman John Fougere said the prison system previously allowed the expense and had provided transportation and security for seven abortions since the Vandalia prison opened in December 1997. But Fougere said officials changed the policy in July after state lawmakers raised questions about it this spring.
State law specifically prohibits "any public funds to be expended for the purpose of performing or assisting an abortion, not necessary to save the life of the mother."
"This past budget session we were really taken to task and we thought it would be prudent for us to revisit our policy in this area," Fougere said. "Realizing we had a cost associated with (transportation), we couldn't be certain that we weren't violating this statute."
He said the prison isn't set up for surgery, precluding the possibility of bringing a physician in to perform the abortion. The prison does pay to take prisoners to hospitals for surgery officials say is medically necessary.
Republicans, including Blunt and the leaders of the state legislature, have not hidden their desire to further restrict access to abortion in Missouri and are currently fighting in court over a law that would ban late-term abortions. In the woman's court filing, she says prison officials told her "all requests for non-therapeutic terminations are denied 'because Governor Blunt wants them denied."'
Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said the governor had nothing to do with the policy change, but "the governor wholeheartedly supports that change and supports the current policy."
The woman's attorney, James Felakos of the American Civil Liberties Union (search), said in court filings that his client is willing to borrow money from friends and family to pay for the abortion itself but can't pay for the transportation and security costs as well.
He said waiting for an appeal could close off his client's options as Missouri doesn't allow abortions after 22 weeks.
"Forced childbearing is particularly cruel for inmates who must deliver a child only to part with it for an extended period of time if not permanently," he wrote in the woman's court filing, noting that the prison does pay for prenatal care and transportation to a hospital for delivery.
Felakos declined further comment to The Associated Press on Friday night.