LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A federal judge on Monday extended a halt she had imposed on an Arkansas law that critics say would make the state the first in the nation to effectively ban abortion pills.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker granted a preliminary injunction preventing Arkansas from enforcing the law, which says doctors who provide the pills must hold a contract with a physician with admitting privileges at a hospital who agrees to handle any complications.
A 14-day temporary restraining order Baker issued against the law expired less than an hour before the judge's latest ruling.
Baker's ruling said the abortion clinics must continue trying to find contracting physicians, but said the state cannot impose any civil or criminal penalties on them for continuing to administer the abortion pills. Baker ruled that the requirement imposes "substantial burdens" on a large fraction of women seeking medication abortions.
"Since the record at this stage of the proceedings indicates that Arkansas women seeking medication abortions face an imminent threat to their constitutional rights, the court concludes that they will suffer irreparable harm without preliminary relief," Baker wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court in May rejected Planned Parenthood's appeal to reinstate Baker's 2016 preliminary injunction blocking the law. Planned Parenthood said its two facilities and another unaffiliated clinic in Little Rock had stopped offering medication abortions because of the restriction.
Baker's latest decision could wind up back before the Supreme Court, where Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement has created uncertainty about the future of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.
"Let this case stand as a warning for people across the country who are worried about the future of Roe v. Wade: the courts are often our last line of defense, and we should demand that they uphold the law of the land," Brandon Hill, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said in a statement. "For patients facing confusion or uncertainty, today's ruling sends a clear message: medication abortion remains safe, legal, and accessible to Arkansan women — and we will do everything in our power to keep it that way."
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, planned to appeal the ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Attorney General Rutledge is extremely disappointed in Judge Baker's decision to issue a preliminary injunction allowing Planned Parenthood and Little Rock Family Planning Clinic to provide medication abortions without protecting the health of pregnant women," Jessica Ray, a spokeswoman, said in a statement. "Under this preliminary injunction, medication abortion providers can now administer these procedures without the necessary safety net available to women who experience emergencies and complications."
Planned Parenthood had appealed an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said Baker failed initially to determine how many women would be unduly burdened by the law and whether they constitute a "large fraction" of women seeking medication abortions in the state. Planned Parenthood doesn't offer surgical abortions at its facilities, while a third facility not affiliated with the group — Little Rock Family Planning Services — does. Planned Parenthood said it has been unable to find any physicians willing to contract with its facilities.