(Adds background on larger abortion debate)
By David Schwartz
PHOENIX Aug 1 A federal appeals court blocked
Arizona on Wednesday from enforcing a new state ban on most
late-term abortions that opponents say is the toughest in the
nation, and agreed to an expedited review of the controversial
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
issued the injunction two days after a federal judge upheld the
ban and threw out a lawsuit brought against the
Republican-backed law, which was due to go into effect on
The measure bars doctors from performing abortions after 20
weeks of pregnancy except in a medical emergency, defined as a
case where an immediate abortion is required to avert the
mother's death or a risk of "substantial and irreversible
impairment of a major bodily function."
Under the law, physicians found in violation of the ban
would face a misdemeanor criminal charge and possible suspension
or revocation of their licenses.
Abortion-rights advocates have cited the Arizona law as the
most extreme version of late-term abortion prohibitions recently
enacted in more than half a dozen states. Such restrictions have
emerged as one of the latest new abortion battlegrounds since
Republicans gained greater statehouse political clout in the
November 2010 elections.
Arizona already bans abortions at the point of viability,
when the fetus could potentially survive outside the womb,
generally considered to begin at 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy. A
full-term pregnancy typically is about 40 weeks.
The U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 but allowed
states to place restrictions on the procedure from the time of
viability unless the woman's health was at risk.
Abortions after 20 weeks of gestation are rare. In Arizona,
pregnancies terminated at 21 weeks or more accounted for just 77
of the 11,059 total abortions performed statewide in 2010,
according to the latest figures available from the state
Department of Health Services.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for
Reproductive Rights challenged the Arizona statute this month in
a suit believed to be the first court case brought on behalf of
abortion providers testing the constitutionality of such laws.
DEBATED MEDICAL RESEARCH
Six states have put laws into effect in the past two years
banning late-term abortions, based on hotly debated medical
research suggesting a fetus feels pain starting at 20 weeks of
gestation. North Carolina enacted its own such ban decades ago.
Arizona and two other states have adopted similar laws that
have yet to take effect.
U.S. District Judge James Teilborg had ruled on Monday that
the Arizona measure, signed into law in April by Republican
Governor Jan Brewer, was consistent with limits federal courts
have allowed to be placed on late-term abortions.
He denied a request for an injunction to halt the law and
threw out the case on its merits, saying the ban "does not
impose a substantial obstacle" to abortions generally and that
Arizona had the right to enact such a measure.
He also found that the state had provided "substantial and
well-documented" evidence that a fetus has the capacity to feel
pain during an abortion by at least 20 weeks of development.
The ruling prompted the appeal to the San Francisco-based
"We are relieved that the court blocked this dangerous ban
and that women in Arizona will continue to be able to get safe,
appropriate medical care," ACLU staff attorney Alexa
Kolbi-Molinas said in a statement.
Under the two-page order issued by the appeals court,
attorneys have until mid-October to present their briefs, and
then the case will be placed on the first available argument
calendar for a hearing.
"The order to place the case for argument recognizes the
important interests of Arizona, and I look forward to the
opportunity to counter the misplaced arguments of the
plaintiffs," Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who
argued the case before Teilborg, said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing
by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)