9th Circuit Court of Appeals Protects Arizona Women’s Access to Non-Surgical Abortion

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Regulations deemed “unconstitutional” and a “burden on women’s access to abortion”
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(PRESS RELEASE) In a unanimous opinion issued this morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has reversed a trial court decision which failed to protect Arizona women’s access to medication abortion—ensuring that women in the state will continue to have access to a method of ending a pregnancy in its earliest stages using medication that has been proven safe by more than a decade of scientific evidence and medical practice. 

In evaluating the state’s attempts to justify the restrictions, the decision stated that “the ‘medical grounds thus far presented’ are not merely ‘feeble.’ They are non-existent. On the current record, the Arizona law imposes an undue—and therefore unconstitutional—burden on women’s access to abortion.”

The case now goes back to the trial court for review. 

Said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“The message in today’s decision is clear:  Politicians need to stop playing doctor, leave the practice of medicine to trained health care professionals, and stop meddling in women’s personal decisions about their health and families.

“This law was never more than another back-door attempt to restrict women’s constitutional right to decide for themselves whether to end a pregnancy, and to cut off access to health care options recommended by the doctors women trust and rely on.

“The decision of this court is squarely in keeping with more than 40 years of established law safeguarding women’s constitutional right to safe, legal abortion care, and with the opinion of the 70 percent of Americans who do not want to see these rights taken away. It is a vital victory.”

The regulations—which were issued by the Department of Health Services on January 27, under the authority of a law signed by Governor Jan Brewer in April 2012­—unconstitutionally restrict medication abortion in such a way that that it possibly bans medication abortion altogether, or at best permits doctors to use it following an inferior, outdated, and less effective protocol, the result of which will deny most Arizona women access to an alternative to surgical abortion that has been widely recognized as safe and effective by medical experts and organizations worldwide for over a decade. 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association submitted a joint amicus curiae brief in April 2014 in support of the legal challenge to Arizona’s regulations, stating that “the law is bad medicine” and jeopardizes “women’s health by requiring that physicians deny women the benefit of the most current, well-researched, safe, evidence-based, and proven protocols for the provision of medical abortion and, instead, prescribe a regimen that is outdated and less safe.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights, along with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, filed the lawsuit in Arizona federal district court in March 2014 on behalf of Planned Parenthood of Arizona and the Tucson Women’s Center challenging Arizona’s restrictions on medication abortion.  On March 31, a federal trial court failed to protect Arizona women’s constitutional rights to non-surgical abortion and women’s health care providers and advocates immediately asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reverse that decision, which the court granted temporarily a few days later.

Harmful and unconstitutional restrictions like these further underscore the need for the federal Women's Health Protection Act (S. 1696/H.R. 3471)—a bill that would prohibit states like Arizona from imposing unconstitutional restrictions on reproductive health care providers that apply to no similar medical care, interfere with women’s personal decision making, and block access to safe and legal abortion services.