A federal judge blocked three new abortion restrictions from taking effect Wednesday in Arkansas, including a measure that opponents say would likely force the state's only surgical abortion clinic to close.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker granted a 14-day temporary restraining order shortly before midnight Tuesday. The 159-page order blocks the state from enforcing the new laws, including a measure prohibiting the procedure 18 weeks into a woman's pregnancy. They also included a requirement that doctors performing abortions be board-certified or board-eligible in obstetrics and gynecology. An official with a Little Rock clinic that performs surgical abortions says it has one physician who meets that requirement, but he only works there a few days every other month.
Baker also blocked a law prohibiting doctors from performing an abortion if it's being sought because the fetus was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
The laws are being challenged by Little Rock Family Planning Services, the state's only surgical abortion clinic, and Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood only offers medication-induced abortions at its Arkansas facilities. Planned Parenthood earlier this month stopped providing medication-induced abortions at its Fayetteville facility while it looks for a new location, but is still providing the procedure at its Little Rock center.
The challenge was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by ACLU of Arkansas. Its spokeswoman, Holly Dickson, said ACLU attorneys were poring over the order and will have a statement later Wednesday. For now, "We are so relieved that these bans and restrictions have been temporarily blocked from taking effect. And we are determined to see them blocked for good," she said.
A message left with a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Attorney General's Office was not immediately returned early Wednesday.
Under current Arkansas law, a physician licensed to practice medicine in the state can perform abortions. The additional qualification for abortion doctors is similar to a Mississippi law a federal judge upheld last year. Opponents say the requirement eliminates a large number of physicians who have had training in the procedure. The state has argued the additional qualification would protect patients.
Little Rock Family Planning has said it has one physician who meets that requirement, but he lives in California and only works at the clinic three to four days every other month.
Arkansas is one of two states with an 18-week ban. Utah enacted a similar restriction this year, but has agreed to not enforce the ban as it's being challenged in federal court.
Several states have laws banning abortion for genetic anomalies including Down syndrome, but North Dakota's is the only that is in effect. The others are also tied up in legal challenges.
Arkansas faces the prospect of losing its only surgical provider while neighboring Missouri's only abortion clinic is fighting to continue providing the service. If that facility closes, Missouri would be the first state without an abortion clinic since the year after the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.
The laws are among several new restrictions approved by the majority-Republican Legislature in Arkansas this year. Another law not challenged that's taking effect Wednesday increases the waiting period before a woman can get an abortion from 48 hours to 72 hours.