The US Supreme Court on Monday turned aside a request by Arizona officials for the high court to examine the constitutionality of a state statute that sought to restrict abortions after 20 weeks of fetal gestation.
A panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the Arizona abortion statute last year, ruling that it violated long-established Supreme Court precedents by depriving a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy prior to the point of fetal viability.
Supporters of the law expressed disappointment over the high court’s move.
“Every innocent life deserves to be protected,” Steven Aden, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Not only did this law protect innocent children in the womb who experience horrific pain during a later-term abortion, it also protected mothers from the increased risk of physical harm and tremendous psychological consequences that come with late-term abortions,” Mr. Aden said in a statement.
Women rights groups praised the high court action.
“Today the court did the right thing,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
In a statement, she warned that women’s health services were under legal attack in court cases across the country. “This unprecedented assault against women’s constitutional rights shows it’s time for new leaders who value women’s health,” she said.
The high court action means the appeals court ruling will remain in place in Arizona, but it leaves unresolved questions about laws passed in states outside the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit.
Twelve states have passed similar laws seeking to reduce the time-frame open for women to decide whether to have an abortion.
Under existing precedents, a woman’s right to choose extends through 24 weeks of a pregnancy, that’s roughly the point at which a developing fetus can survive as a child outside the womb.
Arizona and other states have sought to reduce that limit to 20 weeks. Supporters of the new state laws say the 20-week limit is necessary because that is the point at which a developing fetus can feel pain. They say it would be cruel to subject an unborn child to such an ordeal.
They also argue that more than 90 percent of abortions are performed prior to the 20-week cutoff and that medical risks to a woman are significantly higher for abortions performed after 20 weeks.
“The current state of scientific knowledge demonstrates that a fetus feels pain beginning as early as sixteen (and quite likely by twenty) weeks gestation and that late-term abortion poses an exponential increase in risk to maternal health,” wrote John Eastman of Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif., in his brief on behalf of Arizona officials.
He said the Arizona Legislature passed the 20-week abortion limit to protect the health of the mother and the “dignity of the unborn child to be free from excruciating pain.”
Under the Arizona law, abortions would only be permitted after 20 weeks when deemed necessary to “avert death or serious health risks to the mother.”
In attacking the Arizona statute, abortion rights groups said that viability has remained an effective measure to establish a dividing line between a woman’s right to choose and a state’s power to regulate abortion.
“Two generations of American women and families have come of age, depending on constitutional protection for their reproductive decisions,” wrote Janet Crepps of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, in her brief urging the justices to not take up the case and allow the appeals court decision to stand.
“Far from being on any collision course, the central viability line that this court has repeatedly reaffirmed has proved enduringly workable, and there remains no line other than viability which is more so,” Ms. Crepps said.
In her brief, Crepps said critics of the Arizona law dispute the Arizona Legislature’s findings concerning maternal health and fetal pain. She said both claims have been rejected by the major medical organizations in the field.
Among the 12 other states with 20-week abortion bans, two have been blocked by injunctions. One is a statute passed in Idaho, which falls under the same appeals court as Arizona. Georgia’s statute has also been blocked.
In the meantime, 10 other laws remain in effect in Nebraska, Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Texas.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Arizona statute was “callous and unconstitutional.”
“Women should not be forced to run to court, year after year, in state after state, to protect their constitutional rights and access to critical health care,” she said in a statement.
“Our fundamental rights are not up for debate and cannot be legislated away by politicians who are hell bent on restricting access to the full range of reproductive health care,” she said.
The case was Horne v. Isaacson (13-402).