Ohio can enforce ban on Down syndrome abortions -U.S. appeals court

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) -A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that Ohio can enforce a 2017 law banning abortions when medical tests show that a fetus has Down syndrome.

In a 9-7 decision, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said the law did not create a substantial obstacle to obtaining abortions, was reasonably related to Ohio’s legitimate interests, and was “valid in all conceivable cases.”

The law subjected doctors to license revocations and up to 18 months in prison for performing abortions on women they knew decided to abort at least in part because Down syndrome was in the fetus, or had reason to believe the condition was present.

Tuesday’s decision reversed a 6th Circuit panel ruling in October 2019. The 2-1 panel said the law, House Bill 214, should not be enforced because it prevented some women from obtaining lawful pre-viability abortions.

Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers that challenged the law did not say in a joint statement whether they would appeal to the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority.

“This abortion ban inserts politicians between patients and their doctors, denying services to those who need it,” Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson said.

Ohio’s Republican Attorney General Dave Yost said the decision upholds a law directed to “protecting the lives of every Ohioan.”

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder where a person has an extra chromosome. Symptoms include cognitive impairment, slower physical growth, a flat face, a small head, a short neck and poor muscle tone.

Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder, who wrote Tuesday’s majority opinion, said Ohio’s law promoted the state’s interests in destigmatizing Down syndrome children, and encouraging doctors to respond to such diagnoses with “care and healing.”

The dissenters said the decision turns House Bill 214 into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” law for doctors and pregnant women.

Circuit Judge Bernice Bouie Donald accused the majority of demonstrating unconcealed “hostility” toward Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

The case is Preterm-Cleveland et a v McCloud et al, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 18-3329.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller)

U.S. Supreme Court takes up bid to revive defense of Kentucky abortion law

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a bid by Kentucky’s Republican attorney general to defend a restrictive state law, struck down by lower courts, that abortion rights advocates have said would effectively ban the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron has asked the justices to let him intervene in defense of the Republican-backed law after Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s administration dropped the case.

The Supreme Court is being asked to decide only that narrow issue, and not whether the law violates Supreme Court precedents holding that women have a right to obtain an abortion. Abortion opponents are hopeful that the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, will curb abortion rights.

Abortion rights advocates have said the 2018 law would effectively ban an abortion method called dilation and evacuation – the most common form of abortion performed during the second trimester of a pregnancy.

The law was passed by Kentucky’s legislature and signed by a Republican governor, but Beshear subsequently was elected and decided not to continue to defend the measure after the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down in June 2020. The 6th Circuit later that month declined to allow Cameron to intervene to defend the law.

The 6th Circuit ruling came just five days before the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision struck down a Louisiana law that imposed restrictions on doctors who perform abortions. Cameron wants to be able to ask the 6th Circuit to reconsider its ruling against the Kentucky law in light of language contained in the Louisiana decision.

The Kentucky law was one of a growing number passed by Republican legislators at the state level imposing a variety of restrictions on abortion. The state’s previous governor, Republican Matt Bevin, had defended the law.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Polish doctors torn over mental health as grounds to bypass near-total abortion ban

By Joanna Plucinska and Kuba Stezycki

WARSAW (Reuters) – When Polish doctors told Paulina, 29, that her unborn child had no kidneys and would die upon birth, she knew she couldn’t go through with the pregnancy.

“Everyone says that the reward after the pain of birth is holding your child in your hands,” said Paulina, a retail manager from Gdynia, who asked Reuters to withhold her surname.

“I would have nothing. I would give birth to a dead child, and that pain would be a thousand times worse.”

Until two months ago, women like Paulina still stood a chance of being allowed an abortion in Poland. However, in a ruling that came into effect in January, the constitutional court decided that terminating pregnancies due to fetal abnormalities was no longer legal, effectively imposing a near-total ban on abortions.

Polish law now considers only incest, rape or a threat to a mother’s life and health as valid grounds to terminate a pregnancy.

Poland’s ruling nationalists supported the move but the country was rocked by weeks of nationwide protests following the Oct. 22 ruling, which quickly morphed into an outpouring of anger against the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government and the powerful Catholic Church.

Paulina’s only option, therefore, was to find a doctor willing to attest that giving birth was a threat to her health.

Two weeks after Paulina learned of her baby’s condition, abortion rights activists helped her to find a psychiatrist prepared to state that she needed to have an abortion on mental health grounds, and her abortion went ahead.

This makes her one of perhaps only around a dozen women who has managed to get an abortion on such grounds since the ruling came into effect, abortion support groups told Reuters.

Several doctors and lawyers Reuters spoke to maintain that abortions on mental health grounds are in keeping with the law, but government officials and conservative groups call this into question.

Poland’s Ministry of Health told Reuters in an emailed statement that a qualified medical specialist in the appropriate field should determine if a pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother, depending on the woman’s illness.

It did not say if it considered a threat to mental health as sufficient grounds for an abortion.

“I’ve seen opinions like, ‘I’m anxious and I don’t want to give birth’,” Michal Wojcik, a government minister and member of the socially conservative United Poland grouping allied with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, told Reuters.

“I don’t think we should count such instances, which are there to simply go around the rules.”

A lawyer for Ordo Iuris, a campaign group that champions ultra-conservative and religious causes, also told Reuters that, in her opinion, giving a recommendation on the basis of mental health was illegal.

ABORTION ACCESS SHRINKING

Some women have chosen to get abortions abroad, despite the coronavirus pandemic and the associated travel restrictions. Paulina was initially told she should go to the Netherlands, a trip she was afraid to do alone.

According to abortion support groups, several women are waiting to find a doctor who is willing to help them, of which there are still very few. This is partly out of fear: Under Polish law, women who undergo an illegal abortion face no penalty, while a doctor can be jailed for up to three years.

In addition, many doctors in Poland, especially in the more conservative southeast, were already exercising their legal right to refuse on religious grounds to terminate pregnancies before the ruling went into force. More are expected to do so now.

Of the four doctors who agreed to support Paulina’s case for an abortion, only one, Aleksandra Krasowska, a Warsaw-based psychiatrist, was willing to be named by Reuters, and confirmed that she had referred Paulina for the termination due to her deteriorating mental health. The other three – a psychiatrist, doctor and a gynecologist – spoke to Reuters anonymously.

“It’s important that this isn’t a one-person decision … Then it’s easier for all of us, to handle this fear of the prosecutor and of the three years in jail,” one of the psychiatrists involved told Reuters.

Maciej Socha, a Gdansk-based gynecologist, is one of few doctors willing to argue publicly that a threat to a woman’s mental health should be accepted as a grounds for abortion.

“If a patient has a brain tumor and continuing the pregnancy threatens her life and health, we can end the pregnancy. If a patient has psychiatric reasons …, then in my opinion, this is enough to end such a pregnancy,” Socha said.

Paulina believes the doctors who helped her terminate her pregnancy saved her life. “These people are heroes. That they aren’t afraid of the consequences from this sick country that they live in,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Alicja Ptak and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

In Dominican Republic, proposal to ease abortion ban polarizes nation

By Ezequiel Abiu Lopez

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) – As the abortion rights movement gains pace across Latin America, the issue is heating up in the Dominican Republic – one of the few countries in the region with a total ban on abortion – where activists were camped for an eighth day on Friday outside the president’s palace.

Latin America, where the Catholic Church has held cultural and political sway for centuries, has some of the most stringent abortion laws in the world. Argentina legalized the medical procedure in December and abortion rights activists hope it will give impetus to a regional movement.

In the Dominican Republic, a group of presidential advisors on Tuesday recommended a pending update of the country’s 19th century penal code – stalled since the end of the 1990’s over the issue – revise its stance.

The advisors recommended the code allow terminations when a woman’s life is in danger, the pregnancy is not viable or in cases of rape or incest – similar to the easing of abortion laws conservative Chile approved in 2017.

But the justice commission of the chamber of deputies rejected that on Wednesday, proposing instead that the penal code allow abortion only where the mother’s life is threatened.

Although the proposal is not yet scheduled for debate, it has sparked the ire both of religious groups that want to maintain the total ban and abortion rights activists who say abortion should be allowed in all three circumstances proposed by the presidential advisers.

Without change, abortion rights activists say, women will simply continue resorting instead to dangerous clandestine abortions that account for 13 percent of maternal deaths in the Caribbean country.

“We are the women dying, we are the women in danger,” said Margarita Mercedes, one of the dozens of activists that set up camp seven days ago outside the national palace in downtown Santo Domingo.

Their protest comes ahead of a march some Christian and civil society groups plan on holding in the capital on March 27 to show support for upholding the absolute ban on abortion.

“All three instances (in which the advisors suggested allowing abortion) are murder,” the Archbishop of Santo Domingo, Francisco Ozoria, said on Thursday. “If they approve any one of them, whichever it is, it’s a murder.”

Christian groups already once thwarted an attempt to ease the country’s abortion ban, when they won a case at the Supreme Court challenging a new penal code approved by Congress in 2014 on the basis of errors in legal proceedings.

The update to the penal code was subsequently withdrawn and the debate over abortion died down – until now.

(Reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo; Writing by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Court rules against anti-abortion protesters in New York

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A divided federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled against anti-abortion protesters who have tried to discourage women from entering a reproductive health clinic in the New York City borough of Queens.

Ruling in favor of the New York attorney general’s office, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected claims by the 13 protesters that a federal law and a similar state law protecting abortion providers and patients from attacks and threats of force violated their constitutional free speech rights.

In a 116-page decision, Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler said the federal law was designed to be broad, “given the health risks women needing reproductive care face because of the increased stress, anxiety, and agitation” from misconduct by protesters.

The 2-1 majority also said New York faced irreparable harm absent an injunction against the Saturday morning protests at the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica because the protests, which began in 2012, could recur.

Chief Judge Debra Ann Livingston dissented, accusing the majority of effectively creating “‘buffer zone’ equivalents, thereby threatening the ongoing suppression of legitimate First Amendment activity.”

The appeals court returned the case to U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in Brooklyn, who in July 2018 rejected the state’s request for an injunction against the protests.

Neither the protesters’ lawyers nor the office of state Attorney General Letitia James had an immediate comment.

Wednesday’s decision comes as many states and anti-abortion activists push to curb abortion access, hoping a conservative Supreme Court majority will weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right.

The lawsuit had been brought in 2017 by Eric Schneiderman, then New York’s attorney general.

He said protesters crowded women trying to enter the Choices clinic, made death threats to people trying to escort them, and blocked their path with posters purportedly of aborted fetuses.

Amon had found no proof that the protesters intended to “harass, annoy, or alarm” patients and their escorts.

The case is New York v Griepp et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Nos. 18-2454, 18-2623, 18-2627 and 18-2630.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

‘We are at war:’ Poles mark Women’s Day after abortion rules tightened

By Alicja Ptak and Joanna Plucinska

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poles took to the streets on Monday to mark International Women’s Day, in demonstrations around the country that took on added significance months after a constitutional court banned almost all abortions.

The October ruling, which took effect in January, unleashed a wave of protests that has morphed into broader anger at the government, particularly among young people. Recent protests have been much smaller, but the ruling party’s ratings in most opinion polls have slipped to around 30% from more than 40% in August.

In Warsaw, several dozen protesters brandishing placards with slogans such as “I am a feminist warrior” gathered in the city center, where they were outnumbered by a heavy police presence.

Previous protests organized by the Women’s Strike movement, which opposes the tightening of restrictions regarding abortion, have been marred by violence, with the police criticized for heavy-handed tactics.

“It is difficult to say anything positive about Women’s Day today. We are at war and all I can hope for is that we will win the war,” Klementyna Suchanow, co-founder of the Women’s Strike told Reuters before the demonstration began.

“Women’s Day in 2021 has a specific flavor,” she said. “After the abortion regulations were tightened, this holiday takes on the significance of a battle, just like in the beginning when it was first established, over a 100 years ago.”

As police formed a cordon around the protestors, speech therapist Aleksandra Gajek, 24, called it an intimidation tactic. “The number of police is intended to scare us and force us to stop fighting for our rights,” she told Reuters.

The police was trying to keep traffic moving, spokesman Sylwester Marczak said by phone. “The actions of the police are determined by the blocking of traffic on one of the most important roundabouts in Warsaw.”

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Alicja Ptak and Kuba Stezycki; Writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Richard Chang)

U.S. Supreme Court to weigh Trump administration abortion referral restriction

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide the legality of a government regulation implemented under former President Donald Trump that bars health clinics from receiving federal family planning funds if they provide abortion referrals.

The justices will hear appeals in cases in which 21 states including Oregon, California and New York, the city of Baltimore and organizations including the American Medical Association and Planned Parenthood challenged the 2019 regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

President Joe Biden, who took office on Jan. 20, said during the election campaign that he would reverse course from the Trump administration rule. Such a reversal would require a new regulation to be issued after the customary federal rule-making process.

Critics have dubbed the Trump regulation a “gag rule” because they maintain that it prevents medical professionals from providing counseling about abortion if a clinic receives family planning funds through Title X of the 1970 Public Health Services Act. The rule also requires physical separation at any facilities that receive the federal funding and also provide abortions.

The Trump administration said the rule does not prevent all information on abortion being given to patients but enforces a provision in the 1970 law that prohibited funds being used “in programs where abortion is a method family planning.”

Prior to the 2019 rule, healthcare providers could receive Title X funds if they gave abortion referrals as long as the money was used solely for other family planning purposes.

The rule was meant to help Trump fulfill a 2016 campaign pledge to end federal support for Planned Parenthood, which received about $60 million annually, or one-fifth, of Title X funds. Planned Parenthood, which provides reproductive health services including abortions, left the program in 2019 rather than comply with the rule.

In February 2020, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rule in the challenge brought by states and medical groups. In a separate September 2020 ruling in the lawsuit brought by Baltimore, the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the rule to be unlawful.

Currently, the rule is in effect except for in Maryland, where a federal judge blocked it in the Baltimore case.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Poland’s opposition loosens abortion stance to please younger voters

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s main opposition party called on Thursday for changes in the law to allow pregnancies to be terminated on demand, in a substantial policy shift amid growing strife over abortion in the predominantly Catholic nation.

However, while the centrist Civic Platform (PO) announced a change in its platform, legislative changes are unlikely in the current parliamentary term which is due to continue until 2023.

A Constitutional Court ruling mandating a near total ban on abortion from last October has upturned nearly three decades of broad consensus in Poland that abortion should be allowed only in the case of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s health and fetal abnormality.

The ruling also exposed growing support among young voters in particular for a liberalization of abortion rules in line with the European mainstream, despite the nationalist government’s backing of the court verdict.

The PO said on Thursday it wanted women to have access to abortions at up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in “difficult” situations after consulting with a doctor and psychologist, while also calling for broader access to sex education, birth control, in vitro and prenatal testing.

“This is a response to what our voters expect. A clear stance on this matter,” PO head Borys Budka told a news conference.

Political observers say young voters, many of whom filled the streets with protests for weeks after the court ruling, may be crucial to the outcome of the next parliamentary election, due in 2023.

Opinion surveys have shown a sharp turn towards the left among youth, while the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) appeals to older, poorer voters. Budka’s PO has relied on centrist voters and moderate conservatives for over two decades.

A February poll published by Polish daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna showed that over 40% of Poles, especially younger voters, believe abortion rules should be liberalized.

An SW Research poll conducted soon after the court ruling indicates that over 70% of Poles were against the decision to further restrict abortion rights in the country.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Frances Kerry)

Polish ruling restricting abortion to take effect on Wednesday

By Anna Koper and Joanna Plucinska

WARSAW (Reuters) – A Polish Constitutional Court verdict restricting access to abortion will go into effect on Wednesday, Poland’s government said, three months after it sparked nationwide protests.

In October, the Constitutional Court said termination of pregnancies due to fetal defects should be banned, ending the most common of the few legal grounds for abortion that remained in the largely Roman Catholic country.

Under the ruling, abortions are now only permitted in cases of rape and incest, and when the mother’s life or health is endangered, pushing Poland further from the European mainstream.

Officials from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party said the government would now focus on assisting parents of disabled children, although PiS and its predecessors have been accused by critics of not doing enough to help such families so far.

“The state can no longer take a life away only because someone is sick, disabled, in poor health,” PiS lawmaker Bartlomiej Wroblewski told Reuters.

Conservative values have taken a more prominent role in public life since the nationalist PiS took power in 2015. Access to abortion has declined even without the legislative curbs as more doctors refuse to perform the procedure on religious grounds.

Opponents of PiS have accused it of influencing the ruling, because the Constitutional Tribunal is one of the judicial bodies overhauled by the party during reforms that the European Union says have politicized the courts.

“No law-abiding government should respect this ruling,” Borys Budka, leader of Poland’s largest opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform, told reporters.

The government information center said the court’s verdict would be published in its official gazette – a step necessary for it to take effect – later on Wednesday.

Abortion rights activities called for opponents of the ruling to gather in the streets across Poland following the government’s announcement, which had been expected for weeks.

“We are inviting everyone, please, go out, be motivated, so we can walk together, make a mark,” protest group leader Marta Lempart told news conference.

Opinion surveys have shown some decline in PiS popularity in recent months, but a poll by the government-affiliated CBOS pollster showed it edging back up to 35% this month, from 30% in October. PiS and its two small parliamentary allies won re-election in 2019 with a 44% share of the vote.

(Reporting by Anna Koper, Joanna Plucinska and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alex Richardson)

Support for abortion jumped in Mexico last year, survey finds

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Support for abortion rose sharply in Mexico in 2020, according to a poll published on Monday, as attitudes towards the issue shift across Latin America.

In Mexico, a majority Roman Catholic nation, elective abortion is allowed only in the capital and the state of Oaxaca, but a growing pro-choice movement has been calling for a loosening of restrictions.

At the end of November, support for abortion stood at 48% in a survey, published by the news organizations El Financiero and NaciĆ³n321 – a steep rise from the 29% recorded in March.

The poll, based on telephone interviews with 410 participants, asked if respondents agreed that “the law should permit a woman the right to abortion.”

Although Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, Argentina legalized the procedure last month.

The move was a triumph for the women’s rights movement in a region where the Catholic Church has held cultural and political sway for centuries.

Several nations in Latin American ban abortion outright, including El Salvador, which has sentenced some women to up to 40 years in prison.

Until recently, only Communist Cuba and tiny Uruguay permitted elective abortions.

In most of Mexico, abortion is banned except under certain circumstances, such as rape. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has declined to take a position, saying wider legalization should be a matter for public consultation.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey)