Arizona 20-week abortion ban faces court test

Associated Press Published: November 3, 2012
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PHOENIX (AP) — A federal appeals court is poised to consider Arizona's earliest-in the-nation ban of most abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy amid debate over both its legality and its practical impact on women if allowed to take effect.

The case to be argued Monday before a panel of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges in San Francisco hinges on how far states can go in restricting abortions before viability, when a fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb.

The legal issue is whether the ban effectively prohibits abortions before viability, which would be barred by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, or is merely a restriction such as others the high court has ruled that states can impose.

But it's not just the Arizona ban's legality that's in dispute as lawyers, doctors and advocacy groups weigh in on both sides of the issue.

In fact, just about everything associated with the ban is subject to debate or uncertainty. That includes the validity of the justifications cited by its backers, whether the ban would cause real hardships for women and even exactly how the ban would be implemented.

Arizona is now among 10 states to enact versions of 20-week bans. However, Arizona's ban is considered to be the earliest because its starting point to calculate a fetus' "probable gestational age" would be about two weeks earlier than under the others states' versions.

Aside from a decades-old North Carolina ban, all the bans were enacted in the past several years, starting with Nebraska in 2010.

Besides Arizona and Nebraska, other states with versions of 20-week bans are Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Most were enacted in the past several years.

A challenge to Idaho's ban was scuttled early on, so Arizona's ban is the first to be tested in court.

Arizona's Republican-led Legislature approved it as part of a broader abortion law last spring. The ban was to have taken effect Aug. 2 but the 9th Circuit temporarily blocked implementation pending a ruling on an appeal of a judge's ruling that upheld the law's constitutionality.

The Roe vs. Wade ruling said states cannot prohibit abortions outright prior to viability, generally considered to be about 23-to-24 weeks of pregnancy, but the high court has ruled since that states can impose restrictions such as waiting periods and a ban on a specific late-term abortion procedure.

The Arizona ban was championed by abortion opponents who say it will help protect women from health risks associated with later-term abortions and prevent unborn child from being subjected to pain through abortions.

Those assertions are in dispute, but a prosecutor helping defend the ban said they are concerns that make the ban a reasonable restriction that the state can impose.

Because the ban has an exception for women with medical emergencies, it's not an outright prohibition, Maricopa County Attorney Montgomery told the 9th Circuit in a brief. "The act does not prevent abortions."

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