Arizona v. Roe v. Wade

July 19, 2012

A new lawsuit in Arizona challenges the state's ban on late-term abortion - and has the potential to steer the future of abortion rights in America.

Irin Carmon flags Paul Isaacson, MD v. Tom Horne, Attorney General, a legal challenge jointly filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. It challenges the Arizona law as unconstitutional for banning abortions prior to viability, when the fetus could survive outside the womb on its own.

Viability is a crucial standard in Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court decided in that landmark case that, when a fetus became viable, states had a "legitimate interest in potential life." They could therefore ban abortions after viability, usually thought to be around 24 weeks (making exceptions for cases "necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.")

Arizona's late-term abortion ban begins at 18 weeks, well before most scientific evidence suggests a fetus would be viable. In fact, tries to eschew the viability standard altogether, and bans late-term abortions in Arizona on the basis that the fetus could feel pain "at that gestational age." The scientific evidence on fetal pain, it's worth noting, does not tend to support this. 

"We've asked for the law to be enjoined as it applies to pre-viability abortions," says Talcott Camp of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, who his lead counsel for the two Arizona doctors challenging the law. "Arizona already has a post-viability ban, and we're not asking for that to be enjoined."

The Arizona plaintiffs are the heavyweights of abortion rights litigation; they don't sign on to just any challenge. And they have passed up challenges to six similar laws that states have passed in recent years.

“We make strategic decisions about when and how to fight for women’s access,” Center for Reproductive Rights president Nancy Northup told me last September, explaining her group's decision to lay low.

"When the timing and circumstances are right, we will challenge these. In many states, its not clear there are providers who provide abortion at that point in pregnancy. You can’t challenge a law without that.”

In Arizona, the Center for Reproductive Rights seems to think it has found the right challenge.

The lawsuit is not without risk: There's some worry among the the reproductive rights community that, should such a challenge wind its way up to the Supreme Court, it might not get decided in their favor. In other words, the justices could decide to embrace the fetal pain standard that abortion rights opponents have pushed.

We should know more about where this challenge is headed soon: The Arizona law is slated to take effect on August, and there is a federal court hearing on the challenge scheduled for next Friday, July 27.

 

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Ezra Klein · July 19, 2012