Arizona 20-week abortion ban upheld by US judge

A US judge upholds an Arizona abortion ban law that imposes a 20-week cutoff for women seeking the procedure, well before fetal viability. It's latest victory for abortion opponents.   

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Activists in support of abortion rights and women's health initiatives Members of Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and more than 20 other organizations hold a "Stand Up for Women's Health" rally in support of preventive health care and family planning services, including abortion, in Washington in this April 7, 2011 file photo. Planned Parenthood sued the state of Arizona July 16, 2012 in an effort to overturn legislation that blocks funding for its women's health clinics.

A federal judge on Monday upheld the constitutionality of a tough new abortion law in Arizona, which imposes restrictions on doctors seeking to end a pregnancy well before a fetus can survive on its own outside a mother’s womb.

The restrictions, which were signed into law in April, made Arizona the 10th state to pass a ban on abortion at the 20- week stage— three to four weeks before so-called fetal viability.

Lawyers challenging Arizona’s statute had argued that US Supreme Court precedent says women have a constitutional right to end their pregnancy at any time prior to fetal viability.

But US District Judge James Teilborg said the statute, HB 2036, did not impose a substantial obstacle to woman’s constitutional rights. He said the law is justified by evidence that a fetus can feel pain as soon as 20 weeks after conception.

“While HB 2036 may prompt a few women, who are considering abortion as an option, to make the ultimate decision earlier than they might otherwise have made it, HB 2036 is nonetheless constitutional because it does not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy,” the Phoenix-based judge wrote in a 15-page decision. 

“In choosing to put a limit on abortions past 20 weeks gestational age, the Arizona Legislature cited to the substantial and well-documented evidence that an unborn child has the capacity to feel pain during an abortion by at least 20 weeks gestational age,” he said.

“[Arizona officials] presented uncontradicted and credible evidence to the court that supports this determination,” the judge said.

The ruling clears the way for the law – and its new restrictions -- to take full effect on Thursday.

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights said they would file an emergency appeal asking the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the ruling. 

“Today’s decision casts aside decades of legal precedent, ignoring constitutional protections for reproductive rights that have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court for nearly 40 years and threatening women’s health and lives,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. 

The ACLU and CRR filed suit July 12 seeking to block the statute before it could take effect.

The law bars physicians from performing an abortion after 20 weeks, except in cases of a “medical emergency.” The statute defines medical emergency as a condition that requires an immediate abortion “to avert [a patient’s] death or for which a delay will create serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” 

Lawyers challenging the statute said it undermines efforts to safeguard the health and safety of women. 

“This law forces a sick, pregnant woman to wait until she is on the brink of disaster before her doctor can provide her medically appropriate care,” said Dan Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona.

Other states that have similar restrictions are North Carolina, Nebraska, Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Louisiana.

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