Government & Politics

Federal judge denies Missouri’s request to unblock 20-week abortion ban

A federal judge Wednesday denied Missouri’s request to let a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy go into effect while the state awaits further court action.

U.S. District Court Judge Howard Sachs had previously paused parts of Missouri’s new abortion law, challenged by the Planned Parenthood division that runs the state’s sole abortion clinic, in St. Louis.

The law, which was set to go into effect Aug. 28, criminalizes abortions after 8 weeks of pregnancy. It also triggered bans at 14, 18 and 20 weeks if the initial 8-week ban was found unconstitutional.

Sachs, who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter, issued a preliminary injunction Aug. 27 against the bans based on gestational age after a hearing at the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Missouri in Kansas City.

The state, represented by the attorney general’s office, immediately appealed Sachs’ decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court has set deadlines for legal briefs to be filed through October, but it wasn’t clear when it would hear the case.

The state asked Sachs to reinstate just the 20-week abortion ban during the appeal, reiterating it didn’t think an abortion provider had standing to challenge a law that affects its patients.

In a brief to the court, the state argued that 98.4 percent of women who receive an abortion in Missouri do so before 20 weeks of pregnancy and that 22 states already had 20-week bans in place.

Women in those states chose to comply with the law, rather than challenge it in court. Women in Missouri could choose to do the same, the state argued.

In an order issued Wednesday, Sachs disagreed and noted that the state was essentially asking a federal district court judge to overturn 40 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court has recognized “a right under the Constitution for women to make the ultimate decision regarding abortion of non-viable fetuses,” he wrote. He had previously noted that the state had not presented any evidence that a fetus could survive outside of a womb at 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“While the State Defendants may hope for a change in law, an ‘obedient judge’ has an obligation to give weight to the current recognized legal right, rather than a legally rejected right (prior to viability),” Sachs wrote in his order.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment.

The order was another victory for Planned Parenthood, which has retained legal representation from the national and local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Kansas City law office of Arthur Benson, and New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

“When Attorney General (Eric) Schmitt sent taxpayer-funded lawyers to defend HB 126 in court, he did so knowing these abortion bans are unconstitutional,” Jesse Lawder, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, said in a statement. “In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the state of Missouri who doesn’t think these abortion bans are unconstitutional.”

In his initial order, Sachs allowed a ban on abortions based solely on sex, race and Down Syndrome diagnosis to go into effect, though challenged by Parenthood. He said he would reconsider forgoing a preliminary injunction if presented with better evidence.

Other implemented parts of the law include doubling the amount of medical malpractice insurance an abortion provider is required to have and mandating physicians who perform medication abortions to have “tail insurance,” which continues to cover them after they’ve retired or changed employers. Also, some minors are now required to notify both custodial parents if they seek an abortion.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.