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Supreme Court rejects challenge to Arkansas law restricting medication abortion

"It would make Arkansas the only state to effectively ban medication abortion," Planned Parenthood said.
by Pete Williams /

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday to consider whether a controversial Arkansas law restricting access to medication abortions unconstitutionally burdens a woman's access to abortion services.

By rejecting the legal challenge, the justices allowed a lower court order to lapse that had blocked enforcement of the law, which was passed in 2015. As a result, the restriction will soon take effect.

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It applies to medication abortions, which do not require surgery and are available only in the early stages of pregnancy. Patients are given a pill in a doctor's office and take a second one at home a few days later.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement that as the state's top law enforcement official, "I have fully defended this law at every turn and applaud the Supreme Court’s decision against Planned Parenthood today."

"Protecting the health and well-being of women and the unborn will always be a priority. We are a pro-life state and always will be as long as I am attorney general," Rutledge said.

The Arkansas law, the Abortion-Inducing Drugs Safety Act, requires doctors providing medication abortions to have a contract with another doctor, who must have hospital admitting privileges. Its sponsors described it as a safety measure helping to assure that complications arising at home could be quickly treated.

Planned Parenthood sued to block the law, calling it medically unnecessary. In the rare case when complications arise, the group said, patients are at home and typically seek treatment at a hospital emergency room. And it said because its clinics could not find any doctors willing to accept a contract with a Planned Parenthood-affiliated physician, clinics in Little Rock and Fayetteville would stop offering abortion services if the law went into effect.

"Arkansas is now shamefully responsible for being the first state to ban medication abortion. This dangerous law also immediately ends access to safe, legal abortion at all but one health center in the state," Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood's executive vice president, said in a statement. "If that’s not an undue burden, what is? This law cannot and must not stand. We will not stop fighting for every person’s right to access safe, legal abortion."

The state countered that the procedure is not common, with just 14 percent of Arkansas abortion patients opting for a medication abortion, and that those who seek it are more likely to experience complications.

Arkansas also called the law "a carefully targeted response to medication abortion's unique risks profile" and said it would impose a system similar to one adopted earlier by Texas which required abortion providers to have a working arrangement with a doctor who had hospital admitting privileges.

A federal judge in Little Rock blocked enforcement of the law, finding it similar to a Texas law declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court two years ago. It required doctors providing abortion services to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

But the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the lower court's stay to be lifted and sent the case back to the trial judge for further proceedings to find an estimate of how many women would be burdened by the contract physician requirement. The appeals court allowed the stay of enforcement to remain in effect until the Supreme Court decided whether to hear the case.

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