LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge on Monday issued a new order blocking Arkansas from enforcing its limits on how the abortion pill is administered in the state, expressing skepticism about the benefit of the restrictions approved last year.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker granted Planned Parenthood of the Heartland’s request for a preliminary injunction against the restrictions while she considers the case. The rules had been set to take effect Jan. 1, but Baker previously issued a temporary restraining order that was set to expire Monday.
The law approved by the majority-Republican Legislature last year requires abortion pill providers to follow guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It also requires doctors providing the pill to maintain a contract with another physician with admitting privileges at a hospital who agrees to handle any complications.
"A careful review and balancing of the existing record suggests that the state’s overall interest in the regulation of medication abortions through the contracted physician requirement is low and not compelling," Baker wrote. She expressed similar concerns about the law barring non-federally approved uses of the drug, a practice commonly referred to as off-label.
Planned Parenthood has said it will no longer be able to offer the abortion pill at its Little Rock and Fayetteville health centers if the law takes effect; it does not offer surgical abortions at those clinics. The other abortion provider in the state will only be able to offer surgical abortions.
"It’s a relief to know that as this case proceeds I can continue to provide the highest quality of health care to a woman who comes to Planned Parenthood for safe and legal abortion care," Dr. Stephanie Ho, a Planned Parenthood of the Heartland physician, said in a statement. "No one should get inferior, outdated and less effective care from their physician."
Baker wrote in her order that "inability to travel to the sole remaining clinic in the state will lead some women to take desperate measures, such as attempting to self-abort or seeking care from unsafe providers, which would further put their health at risk."
The off-label restriction would require women to take a higher dose of the medication than what is typically prescribed and restrict the time period for administering it from up to nine weeks to up to seven weeks. In her order, Baker noted that the restriction has no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.
"At this stage of the proceedings, the Court finds that the threat of irreparable harm to (Planned Parenthood) and Dr. Ho, and the public interest, outweighs the immediate interests and potential injuries to the state," she wrote.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office said she’s disappointed in Baker’s decision but believes the law will eventually be upheld.
"Act 577 was passed to help ensure that medication abortions are conducted in a safe, responsible manner and with appropriate protections for women," spokesman Judd Deere said in an email.
The measure was among several new abortion restrictions approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson last year. Baker’s ruling comes as Planned Parenthood is also challenging Hutchinson’s decision to cut off Medicaid funding to the organization over videos secretly recorded by an anti-abortion group.
Baker last year ordered Arkansas to pay Medicaid claims for three Planned Parenthood patients who are unidentified plaintiffs in the case, and the organization hopes to expand that decision to current and future Medicaid patients who seek treatment at its facilities.