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Louisiana abortion clinics stay open after judge temporarily blocks ban

An abortion rights advocate demonstrates outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse in Baton Rouge on July 18. (Stephen Smith/AP)
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Clinics in Louisiana will continue to perform abortions as a legal challenge to the state’s trigger laws wends its way through the courts, after a state district court judge on Thursday granted a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking the near-total abortion ban.

“Today’s ruling is critical in ensuring that women in Louisiana continue to have access to comprehensive — and sometimes life-saving — healthcare services,” Joanna Wright, a lawyer for the plaintiffs challenging the state’s abortion ban, said in a statement shared with The Washington Post.

Abortion access in Louisiana has been sporadic in the weeks following the Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade. The state’s trigger laws briefly shut down clinics until a judge granted a temporary restraining order that blocked enforcement of the ban. Abortions resumed but stopped again when that restraining order dissolved as the case was moved to a new jurisdiction, in Baton Rouge.

Days later, another judge granted a second temporary restraining order, allowing abortions to resume once more, until the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction could be considered.

Judge Donald R. Johnson granted the preliminary injunction Thursday, blocking enforcement of the state’s abortion ban until the case has been concluded. The case now proceeds to a trial, where the court will decide whether to grant the plaintiff’s request to permanently block the state’s abortion bans. The plaintiffs argue that the state’s laws are “constitutionally vague” because they do not clearly define what actions are considered illegal, as required by the state constitution.

“We are prepared to prove our case and hope to obtain a final ruling that the trigger bans are unconstitutional and cannot be enforced,” Wright said. “In the interim, providers are protected against vindictive prosecution from the state.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who represents the state in the lawsuit, said the state would continue the fight in the courts to enforce the state’s abortion laws.

“We look forward to ending this legal circus by getting the case to the State’s Supreme Court as soon as possible – especially, as Justice [William] Crain recently noted, terminating alleged life during the period of a restraining order is irreparable harm,” Landry’s office said in an email.

Landry has been vocal about his intention to enforce Louisiana’s abortion laws immediately if the court rules in the state’s favor.

Louisiana is one of the few states in the South where abortions can still be performed, at least for now, after the fall of Roe. On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned a lower court’s pause on the Georgia’s “heartbeat” ban — that ban blocks abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — and made the unusual decision to allow the law to take effect immediately.

Abortion bans are now in place, with few exceptions, in a swath of neighboring states across the region including Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Even as Louisiana battles to enforce its abortion ban in court, local officials in New Orleans have taken steps to put roadblocks in the way should the court allow the ban to take effect. In early July, the city council approved a resolution that instructed police not to pursue charges against abortion providers or patients. Landry responded to that effort by urging other state agencies to withhold funding from the city.

For now, Louisiana is an island of abortion access surrounded by states where the procedure is almost completely illegal. The state has three clinics that have been offering abortion services under the temporary restraining orders and may continue to do so under the preliminary injunction.

“Patients have been terrified that any day these bans might take effect again and they’ll be left with no options,” Jenny Ma, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights representing the plaintiffs said in a statement. “But this ruling means doctors can provide healthcare that is best for their patients, and not be subject to laws that are so ambiguous that they don’t know how they can do their jobs. While today’s decision is not the final ruling, it is a huge victory in preserving access to essential healthcare in Louisiana and for those in the region.”