News Law and Policy

Judge Temporarily Blocks Alaska Medicaid Abortion Restrictions

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The new rules would drastically redefine what constitutes a "medically necessary" abortion for purposes of Medicaid coverage.

On Tuesday, an Alaska judge approved a temporary restraining order on new state rules that would drastically narrow the definition of a medically necessary abortion for purposes of Medicaid coverage.

Judge John Suddock issued the order following a hearing as part of a lawsuit where reproductive rights advocates argued the rules were unconstitutional and, if not immediately blocked, would cause irreparable harm to the Medicaid recipients in the state in need of comprehensive reproductive health care.

The six-page order is not a decision on the merits, but rather blocks the rules from going into effect while the court further considers the arguments made by attorneys on behalf of the plaintiff, Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest. The court scheduled a status hearing for February 7, during which it will consider issuing a more lasting preliminary injunction, which would remain in place while the challenge to the constitutionality of the rules moves forward.

According to the order, during oral argument, attorneys for the state agreed to transform any temporary restraining order into a preliminary injunction to save time and resources. Presuming that agreement remains, Judge Suddock would likely issue a preliminary injunction during the hearing. But should the state object for some reason, then the court would have to schedule a separate hearing on the preliminary injunction. That hearing would take place within the next 20 days. In the meantime, the court could, at its discretion, extend the temporary restraining order issued Tuesday by up to 20 days.

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News Abortion

Parental Notification Law Struck Down in Alaska

Michelle D. Anderson

"The reality is that some young women face desperate circumstances and potentially violent consequences if they are forced to bring their parents into their reproductive health decisions," said Janet Crepps, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "This law would have deprived these vulnerable women of their constitutional rights and put them at risk of serious harm."

The Alaska Supreme Court has struck down a state law requiring physicians to give the parents, guardians, or custodians of teenage minors a two-day notice before performing an abortion.

The court ruled that the parental notification law, which applies to teenagers younger than 18, violated the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection guarantee and could not be enforced.

The ruling stems from an Anchorage Superior Court decision that involved the case of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands and physicians Dr. Jan Whitefield and Dr. Susan Lemagie against the State of Alaska and the notification law’s sponsors.

In the lower court ruling, a judge denied Planned Parenthood’s requested preliminary injunction against the law as a whole and went on to uphold the majority of the notification law.

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Planned Parenthood and the physicians had appealed that superior court ruling and asked for a reversal on both equal protection and privacy grounds.

Meanwhile, the State of Alaska and the notification law’s sponsors appealed the court’s decision to strike some of its provisions and the court’s ruling.

The notification law came about after an initiative approved by voters in August 2010. The law applied to “unemancipated, unmarried minors” younger than 18 seeking to terminate a pregnancy and only makes exceptions in documented cases of abuse and medical emergencies, such as one in which the pregnant person’s life is in danger.

Justice Daniel E. Winfree wrote in the majority opinion that the anti-choice law created “considerable tension between a minor’s fundamental privacy right to reproductive choice and how the State may advance its compelling interests.”

He said the law was discriminatory and that it could unjustifiably burden “the fundamental privacy rights only of minors seeking pregnancy termination, rather than [equally] to all pregnant minors.”

Chief Justice Craig Stowers dissented, arguing that the majority’s opinion “unjustifiably” departed from the Alaska Supreme Court’s prior approval of parental notification.

Stowers said the opinion “misapplies our equal protection case law by comparing two groups that are not similarly situated, and fails to consider how other states have handled similar questions related to parental notification laws.”

Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) officials praised the court’s ruling, saying that Alaska’s vulnerable teenagers will now be relieved of additional burdensome hurdles in accessing abortion care. Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, CRR, and Planned Parenthood represented plaintiffs in the case.

Janet Crepps, senior counsel at CRR, said in a statement that the “decision provides important protection to the safety and well-being of young women who need to end a pregnancy.”

“The reality is that some young women face desperate circumstances and potentially violent consequences if they are forced to bring their parents into their reproductive health decisions. This law would have deprived these vulnerable women of their constitutional rights and put them at risk of serious harm,” Crepps said.

CRR officials also noted that most young women seeking abortion care involve a parent, but some do not because they live an abusive or unsafe home.

The American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine have said minors’ access to confidential reproductive health services should be protected, according to CRR.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks Two Extreme Alabama Anti-Abortion Provisions

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The temporary order prevents officials in Alabama from enforcing a ban on later abortions and implementing a law that would regulate abortion clinics in a similar fashion as sex offenders.

A federal judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked two Alabama abortion restrictions set to take effect August 1 that would ban abortion clinics near schools and criminalize the most commonly used later abortion procedure.

In May, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed into law a ban on abortion clinics within 2,000 feet of public K-8 schools. He also approved a separate measure banning the most common method of performing a later abortion, known as dilation and evacuation, or D&E, abortions.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged both provisions on behalf of providers in the state, arguing they were unconstitutional. According to attorneys for the ACLU, the location restriction would close the state’s two busiest abortion clinics, while the method ban would hamper access to later abortions.

The first blocked measure would prohibit the Alabama Department of Public Health from issuing or renewing a health center license to an abortion clinic or reproductive health center close to some public schools. As reported by Rewire, this would effectively regulate abortion clinics in the same manner as registered sex offenders. In Alabama, sex offenders cannot reside within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care facility.

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The second blocked measure would outlaw most surgical abortions. Dilation and evacuation, the most common form of surgical abortion, is used in the majority of abortions after 13 weeks of pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It is extremely safe, with less than one in 1,000 patients experiencing complications.

Dr. Willie Parker, a physician who provides later abortions in Alabama, wrote in a statement to the court that, if allowed to take effect, the law would prevent him from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

According to Dr. Parker’s submission to the court, the only alternative to D&E is to induce labor in a hospital, a much riskier and expensive alternative for the patient.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson Wednesday issued a temporary restraining order to block the state from enforcing the provisions until after an October 4 hearing. In the meantime, both sides were ordered to submit written arguments to the court in advance of that October hearing.

Alabama is not the only state to attack later abortion access. Kansas and Oklahoma both passed similar bans, but those laws remain blocked by court order.