LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Federal courts have delivered mixed verdicts over Arkansas' abortion restrictions, with one ruling blocking four laws limiting the procedure and another letting new requirements for administering the abortion pill take effect.
Together, they show that the that the fight over efforts by an increasingly Republican legislature to scale back abortion won't end anytime soon, and also shows how much of a role Arkansas is going to play in the national debate being waged over abortion rights.
Abortion rights groups hailed U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker's late-night ruling last month to halt new abortion restrictions, three of which were set to take effect last week. The ruling came hours after a federal appeals court reversed a separate decision by Baker that halted a 2015 law regarding the abortion pill.
"By blocking these laws, the judge has prevented some of the most egregious burdens Arkansas politicians have tried to impose on women seeking abortion in the state," Talcott Camp, deputy director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement after the ruling. The ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights had sued the state over the new restrictions, enacted by the Legislature earlier this year.
The laws blocked include a ban on a procedure known as dilation and evacuation. Abortion rights supporters say it is the safest and most common procedure used in second-trimester abortions, but the state calls it a barbaric and "dismemberment abortion" and says it can leave emotional scars on the women who undergo it.
Baker also appeared to agree with concerns abortion rights groups raised about another of the laws she blocked, one that would impose new restrictions on disposal of fetal tissue. The groups argued that it could also block access by requiring notification of a third party, such as the woman's sexual partner or her parents, to determine what happens to the fetal remains. The state has said the law doesn't require permission or notice from those third parties before an abortion and includes several provisions that ensure notice or consent isn't required to dispose of the fetal remains.
"The law mandates disclosure to a woman's partner or spouse, even if that person is no longer in her life or is a perpetrator of sexual assault," Baker wrote. "For minor women, it bypasses the state's constitutionally mandated judicial bypass process, through which a minor can choose not to involve her parent in her abortion decision and instead obtain judicial authorization."
Other laws halted by Baker include part of a "sex selection" abortion ban that require a doctor performing the procedure first request records related to the entire pregnancy history of the woman. The other blocked measure would have expanded the requirement that physicians performing abortions on minors take certain steps to preserve embryonic or fetal tissue and notify police where the minor resides.
The ruling drew objections from abortion opponents and the state, which said it planned to appeal Baker's decision.
"It is unfortunate one judge would take it upon herself to block good laws the Arkansas Legislature passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support," Jerry Cox, head of the Family Council Action Committee, said in a post on the conservative group's website.
The most recent order is just one front in the battle over Arkansas' abortion laws. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had just lifted an earlier Baker order that halted a requirement that doctors who administer the abortion pill maintain a contract with another physician who has admitting privileges at a hospital and who agrees to handle any complications. That case now heads back to Baker after the appeals court panel said the federal judge didn't estimate how many women would be affected by the new restriction.
And a new fight opens this week, with a federal judge hearing arguments over another Arkansas law requiring the state to suspend or revoke the license of abortion providers for the violation of any rule or law. Planned Parenthood Great Plains and Little Rock Family Planning Services have filed a lawsuit aimed at halting the new requirement. The state's appeal over Baker preventing it from blocking Medicaid funds to Planned Parenthood is also still pending in federal court.
The recent back-to-back rulings offered victories of sorts to both sides of the abortion debate in Arkansas, but no clear resolution on just how far the state's limits can go.