Appeals Court Strikes Down Idaho’s 20-Week Abortion Ban

May 29, 2015 1:57 p.m.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck down an Idaho law banning abortions 20 weeks into pregnancy Friday on the basis that the law unconstitutionally prohibits abortions before the point of fetal viability outside of the womb. It also declared unconstitutional Idaho’s requirement that women undergo second trimester abortions in hospitals, calling it “an undue burden” on women seeking abortions.

The challenger in the suit, Jennie McCormack, was initially prosecuted for self-inducing a abortion using medication, which was not authorized by state law. A state court dismissed the criminal case against her, and McCormack subsequently filed a class action federal lawsuit against Idaho challenging a number of the state’s abortion provisions. She was joined by a physician representing himself and his patients. In 2013, a federal district court declared the challenged laws unconstitutional. The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit upheld that ruling Friday.

The appeals court panel — made up of two Democratic-appointees and one Republican-appointee — found that by prohibiting abortions 20 weeks after fertilization, Idaho violated the Supreme Court’s decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, which said women have the right to “choose to have an abortion before viability and to obtain it without undue interference from the State.”

The appeals court also noted that the Supreme Court has twice struck down laws requiring second-trimester abortions to be performed in hospitals, dismissing as “irrelevant” the state’s argument that very few abortions in Idaho are performed after 14 weeks.

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Finally, it found Idaho’s requirement that first-trimester abortions take place in clinics or hospitals meeting certain standards to be unconstitutionally vague for using terminology like “consideration,” “respect,” “dignity,” “individuality,” “properly staffed” and “satisfactory arrangements.” The appeals court said that language was “subjective and open to multiple interpretations,” especially given violators of the law were subject to criminal, not just civil, prosecution.

Friday’s decision comes as momentum behind anti-abortion legislation, particularly 20-week abortion bans, grows. Similar prohibitions have been passed in 14 states in the past five years. Supporters of the measures say 20 weeks is when fetuses begin to feel pain, a claim most of the medical community considers to be without scientific basis. Opponents say the ban abortions prior to the point of viability, commonly held to be around 24 weeks.

Last year, the Supreme Court passed on the opportunity to review the decision of an appeals court that struck down a Arizona law banning abortions 18 weeks post-fertilization. Georgia’s law has also been blocked by courts. Nevertheless, 20-week abortion ban bills were introduced in 11 other states this year. West Virginia enacted its version this week, while South Carolina’s and Wisconsin’s bills also gained steam. The U.S. House of Representatives this month also approved of a federal 20-week ban, which Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said he will soon introduce in the Senate.

Read the full decision below:

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