THE SUPREME COURT’S refusal to hear a challenge of an Arkansas law governing medication abortion had immediate effects. Women en route to appointments to receive the pills used in the procedure were forced to go home with no backup plan. Two clinics offering only medication abortions had to tell women they could no longer provide this service, leaving the state with just one health center that performed surgical abortions. No doubt the law’s framers were pleased with having accomplished their goal of limiting access to abortion. But, for the sake of the health needs of Arkansas women, their victory ought to be short-lived.
At issue is a 2015 law that requires abortion providers to have a signed contract with a physician with admitting privileges at a hospital in order to provide medication abortion. The requirement is a textbook example of the use of TRAP laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers) to block abortion access by imposing burdensome regulations under the specious guise of protecting women’s health and safety. Medication abortions, widespread in other countries and in use in the United States for more than a decade, have proved to be safe and effective in ending early pregnancies. A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that complications occur in a fraction of 1 percent of cases of medication abortion.
A federal district court judge in 2016 blocked the law from taking effect, determining that the medical benefits were few at best and were far outweighed by the burdens it imposed. The requirement is difficult to meet because it limits eligible backup providers to a narrow scope of practitioners, and the absence of a guarantee of privacy caused doctors to be fearful of antiabortion backlash against their practices and families. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit vacated the district court decision, saying no determination had been made of how many women would be affected. The Supreme Court — which in 2016 struck down a Texas law that was similar to that in Arkansas — declined to hear the case. For the time being, that means medication abortions are effectively banned in Arkansas, the first state to do so.
Not only does the law deny women the option of a procedure that is less invasive and more private than surgical abortion, but also it has made access to safe, legal abortion even more difficult. Only one clinic, located in Little Rock, is equipped to provide surgical abortions. Women in other parts of the state, including many low-income patients served by Planned Parenthood clinics, would have to travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion there or go out of state. Planned Parenthood is right to call this law dangerous and has asked for emergency relief as the case moves forward. The court should grant that relief.