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Sun, Dec. 15

Arizona court clears way for abortion restrictions

PHOENIX - An Arizona appeals court ruled Thursday to allow key parts of a state law restricting abortions to take effect, including one that requires women to see a doctor in person the day before getting an abortion to hear about risks and alternatives.

The provisions have been on hold for two years after a state judge blocked them from taking effect in 2009.

But the Arizona Court of Appeals on Thursday ordered the judge to lift his hold, saying the provisions are constitutional and don't put undue burdens on women seeking to end their pregnancies.

The provisions are part of an abortion law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in July 2009, six months after she took office, and include a requirement for women to get so-called "informed consent" about risks and alternatives from a doctor in person before getting an abortion.

Currently, women are allowed to get that information over the phone from a doctor or a nurse practitioner.

The appellate court's ruling also covers provisions banning nurses from performing surgical abortions and requiring parental consent forms to be notarized for minors getting abortions. Another provision expands an existing law that allows healthcare workers to refuse to participate in abortions for moral or religious reasons

"If this law takes effect in its entirety, it will put women in Arizona in harm's way. Period. End of story," said Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood of Arizona.

Planned Parenthood, Arizona's major abortion provider, had challenged the law's constitutionality, which led to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Donald Daughton's block of portions of it. The judge allowed other provisions to go into effect, including requiring women to wait 24 hours after their initial visit before getting an abortion.

Howard said the combination of allowing only doctors to perform surgical abortions and requiring women to meet with a doctor in person 24 hours before the procedure is a hardship, especially for women living in rural areas.

Flagstaff, for example, has no doctors who perform abortions, just one nurse practitioner, Howard said.

That means that a woman living in Window Rock in northeastern Arizona would have to drive five hours to Phoenix to meet with a doctor and stay overnight before getting a surgical abortion, he said. Then she would have to make the four-hour drive home.

"How that cannot be understood to be a hardship and potentially dangerous is beyond me," Howard said.

Deborah Sheasby, legal counsel for the anti-abortion Center for Arizona Policy, said the new provisions wouldn't be overly burdensome to women and weren't meant to discourage abortions.

"We believe this is a basic safety thing," she said.

Twenty-nine states require waiting periods for abortions - typically 24 hours, while 34 states require some type of counseling beforehand, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"This is a great day for Arizona women and parents," Brewer said in a prepared statement. "The 2009 Abortion Consent Act empowers women by giving them the objective information they need prior to deciding whether to have an abortion. Women deserve all the facts from their physician, in person, before making such a critical decision. Today's court decision will help guarantee that.

"The Act also empowers parents by strengthening Arizona's parental consent laws. Now, in most cases, any minor seeking an abortion must first obtain a notarized statement of parental consent. Effective parental consent is a fundamental principle that Arizonans on both sides of the abortion debate can support. Today's ruling will also protect women's health and safety by requiring that surgical abortions be performed by a physician."

House Speaker Andy Tobin praised the ruling Thursday.

"Today's decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals is a tremendous victory for life in Arizona," he said in a news release. "The Abortion Consent Act protects the health and safety of Arizona women as well as the preborn. While I wish we had been able to implement this important legislation two years ago, this is a significant step forward in our efforts to protect and defend life at all stages."

The new provisions could take effect as soon as a month from now but could be held up for more than a year if Planned Parenthood files an appeal in the Arizona Supreme Court.

Howard said Planned Parenthood's staff is considering an appeal.

Meanwhile, two other abortion measures scheduled to take effect last month have been blocked as a judge considers another legal challenge from Planned Parenthood. A hearing on the matter is set for Aug. 22.

Those measures would require clinics that perform medication abortions to meet state requirements on personnel, equipment, facilities and procedures that previously were imposed only on clinics that perform surgical abortions. They also would ban nurse practitioners from performing medication abortions, which account for about half of the abortions performed in Arizona, according to state data.

The Arizona Legislature and Brewer also have approved laws banning abortions based on the gender or race of the fetus and denying a state income tax break to donations to Planned Parenthood of Arizona.

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