U.S. abortion rights groups sue over Missouri law

FILE PHOTO: Abortion rights advocates attend a rally after a judge granted a temporary restraining order on the closing of Missouri's sole remaining Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Bryant

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Prominent U.S. abortion rights groups Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit late on Tuesday in an effort to stop a new Missouri law that bans almost all terminations of pregnancies after eight weeks.

The new law was signed by Republican Governor Mike Parson in May and is set to go into effect on Aug. 28.

The 31-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri contends that the legislation is unconstitutional. It asks for an injunction to stop the law from being enacted next month until the complaint is resolved.

“Without this relief, the bans will have a devastating effect on patients seeking access to abortion in the state,” lawyers wrote in the complaint.

The law is one of the most restrictive in the nation and activists contend it effectively forbids most abortions since many women do not know they are pregnant yet at eight weeks.

In a perennially divisive moral and political fight, similar laws have been proposed in more than a dozen other U.S. states as Republican-controlled legislatures flex their muscles.

Efforts to roll back Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in 1973, have been emboldened by two appointments by President Donald Trump giving conservatives a solid majority on the court.

Neither representatives for the Missouri governor’s office, nor lawyers for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, were immediately available for comment early Wednesday.

Parson said in May the new law would make Missouri “one of the strongest pro-life states in the country.”

The legislation allows for an abortion after the eighth week only in the case of medical emergencies, and provides no exceptions for victims or rape or incest.

Plaintiffs in the Missouri complaint said the law conflicts with more than four decades of binding precedent, would prohibit “the vast majority of pre-viability abortions”, and denied patients healthcare they were entitled to.

Planned Parenthood is engaged in separate litigation with the state to keep a St. Louis clinic open. If Missouri officials succeed in closing the clinic, it would become the only U.S. state without a legal abortion facility.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

U.S. rights groups, doctors sue to stop Georgia ‘heartbeat’ abortion ban

FILE PHOTO: Abortion-rights campaigners attend a rally against new restrictions on abortion passed by legislatures in eight states including Alabama and Georgia, in New York City, U.S., May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

(Reuters) – A group of civil rights organizations, doctors and clinics sued Georgia’s government on Friday to overturn a law passed in March that bans abortions if an embryonic or fetal heartbeat can be detected.

The law, which was passed by Republicans, will make abortion possible only in the first few weeks of a pregnancy absent a medical emergency, in many cases before a woman even realizes she is pregnant. It is due to take effect in January.

“This law is an affront to the dignity and health of Georgians,” the lawsuit, which was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of the plaintiffs, said. It said that Georgians, particularly black Georgians, already die from pregnancy-related causes at a higher rate than in most other U.S. states.

At least four other Republican-led states this year passed laws dramatically limiting abortion. The laws are in conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which found that women have a constitutional right to abort a pregnancy.

Some religious conservatives hope the passage of such laws will force the Supreme Court, in which conservative-leaning justices hold the majority, to revisit and even overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. Until the new law takes effect, Georgians are allowed to get an abortion until about the 20th week of pregnancy, with narrow exceptions.

The lawsuit names Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr, and other state government and medical officials as defendants. The lawsuit asks a judge to block the law from being enforced.

A spokeswoman for Carr, Katie Byrd, said by email that her office could not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for Kemp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A doctor who performs an abortion after an embryonic or fetal heartbeat is detected could be imprisoned for up to 10 years under Georgia’s new law.

Defenders of the law say they believe an embryo or a fetus should be afforded similar rights to those of a baby, often citing religious arguments in their support.

The law’s opponents say denying women abortions has already been deemed unconstitutional, and note that abortion restrictions force some women to turn to riskier means to end a pregnancy, which can sometimes be deadly.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Susan Thomas and Bill Trott)

As conservative U.S. states pass abortion bans, Missouri’s sole clinic could close

People take part in a pro-choice march in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., May 30, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Ael Diehm/via REUTERS

By Pavithra George

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) – Missouri could become the only U.S. state without a legal abortion provider on Friday, as its only abortion clinic could lose its license to perform the procedure unless a St. Louis judge intervenes.

The legal battle in St. Louis comes a week after Missouri Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, signed a bill banning abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy, making Missouri one of nine U.S. states to pass anti-abortion legislation this year.

Planned Parenthood sued Missouri this week after state health officials said the license for Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis was in jeopardy because they were unable to interview seven of its physicians over “potential deficient practices,” documents filed in a St. Louis court showed.

The circuit judge in the case, Michael Stelzer, was expected on Friday to rule on Planned Parenthood’s request for a temporary restraining order and injunction against the state, according to local media.

Outside the clinic, a handful of anti-abortion protesters stood holding “Choose Life” signs early Friday.

If Stelzer rules against Planned Parenthood, the clinic’s license to perform abortions would expire at midnight, making Missouri the only U.S. state without an abortion clinic since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that established a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

Abortion is one of the most socially divisive issues in U.S. politics, with opponents often citing religious beliefs to call it immoral, while abortion-rights advocates say the bans amount to state control of women’s bodies.

On Thursday, abortion-rights demonstrators held a rally in downtown St. Louis, where police arrested Alderman Megan Ellyia Green and several Planned Parenthood board members during a sit-in at the Wainwright State Office Building, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.

Anti-abortion activists say they aim to prompt the newly installed conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade by enacting laws that are virtually assured of facing court challenges.

A series of prominent U.S. media companies said they will rethink working in Georgia, if a new state law takes effect, banning abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected by doctors. That standard effectively bans abortions at about six weeks into a pregnancy, before some women would even be aware they were pregnant.

Those companies include AT&T Inc’s WarnerMedia, CBS Corp, Viacom Inc, Comcast Corp’s NBCUniversal, AMC Networks Inc, Walt Disney Co and Netflix Inc.

(Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone, Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)

Missouri’s last abortion clinic warns it may close after state action

FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured at the entrance to a Planned Parenthood building in New York August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – Missouri’s only abortion clinic expects to be shut down this week after the state health department refused to renew its license, which would make it the only U.S. state without a legal abortion clinic, Planned Parenthood said on Tuesday.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services did not respond to a request for comment.

The regulatory move is the latest in a wave of actions in Republican-led states to stop abortion. Anti-abortion activists say they aim to prompt the newly installed conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson on Friday signed a bill banning abortion beginning in the eighth week of pregnancy, making Missouri one of eight states that have passed anti-abortion legislation this year.

“This is a real public health crisis,” said Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which runs the clinic. “More than a million women of reproductive age in Missouri will no longer have access to a health center in the state they live in that provides abortion care.”

The state department of health told the clinic it could not approve a license until it interviewed seven physicians who the state believed might be involved in “potential deficient practices,” CBS News reported, citing written communication between the clinic and the health department. Planned Parenthood said it could not comply with this request because only two of the physicians are employed by Planned Parenthood, and the other five have not agreed to be interviewed, according to CBS.

Planned Parenthood said in a statement that the clinic would sue the state health department on Tuesday to preserve access to legal abortions in the state.

CHALLENGE TO EIGHT-WEEK BAN

Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri said on Tuesday that it would seek to repeal Missouri’s law banning abortion after the eighth week of pregnancy through a referendum on the state’s 2020 election ballot.

If the Missouri Secretary of State certifies the referendum petition for circulation, the ACLU would then need to collect over 100,000 signatures before Aug. 28 – when the law is due to go into effect – to delay the law until a 2020 vote.

The recent wave of anti-abortion legislation reflects a boost of confidence among anti-abortion advocates after Republican President Donald Trump named two justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, to the U.S. Supreme Court, establishing a 5-4 conservative majority.

Earlier this year, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio outlawed abortion after a doctor can detect an embryonic heartbeat, which can occur at six weeks, often before a woman knows she is pregnant. Two weeks ago, Alabama passed a total ban on abortions except if a pregnant woman’s life is in danger.

Despite the uptick in anti-abortion measures from Republican-led states, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 58% of American adults said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, up from 50% in a similar poll that ran 10 months earlier in July 2018.

Abortion-rights activists have pledged legal action against the states that pass laws contradicting Roe v. Wade. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit against Alabama last week and have obtained injunctions blocking Kentucky and Mississippi’s anti-abortion laws.

Anti-abortion advocates have said they expected legal challenges to these laws and that they welcome the chance to have a court test their conviction that a fetus’ right to life is paramount.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris on Tuesday was set to unveil her plan to protect abortion rights.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)

Republican Alabama governor mulling nation’s strictest abortion law

The U.S. Flag and Alabama State Flag fly over the Alabama Governor's Mansion as the state Senate votes on the strictest anti-abortion bill in the United States at the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

(Reuters) – Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on Wednesday was mulling whether to sign the United States’ strictest abortion law, part of a multistate effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider women’s constitutional right to abortion.

The state’s Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would outlaw nearly all abortions, including in the cases of pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest, allowing exceptions only to protect the mother’s health.

The Republican governor is a strong opponent of abortion but has so far withheld comment on whether she would sign the bill.

If Ivey signs the bill, the law would take effect six months later. But it is certain to face legal challenge from abortion rights groups, which have vowed to sue.

Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced this year in 16 states, four of whose governors have signed bills banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.

The Alabama bill goes further, banning abortions at any time. Those performing abortions would be committing a felony, punishable by 10 to 99 years in prison. A woman who receives an abortion would not be held criminally liable.

The Senate defeated a Democratic amendment that would have allowed legal abortions for women and girls impregnated by rape or incest.

Anti-abortion advocates know any laws they pass are certain to be challenged. Courts this year have blocked a restrictive Kentucky law and another in Iowa passed last year.

But supporters of the Alabama ban said the right to life of the fetus transcends other rights, an idea they would like tested at the Supreme Court.

The high court, now with a majority of conservative justices after Republican President Donald Trump appointed two, could possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.

Just this year, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have outlawed abortion after a doctor can detect an embryonic heartbeat.

Opponents call the “heartbeat” legislation a virtual ban because embryonic cardiac activity can be detected as early as six weeks, before a woman may be aware she is pregnant.

The National Organization for Women denounced Alabama’s ban as unconstitutional.

Actress and activist Alyssa Milano has called for a sex strike under the social media hashtag #SexStrike in response to the campaigns against abortion rights, urging women to refuse sex with men “until we get bodily autonomy back.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. to expand abortion ‘gag rule,’ won’t fund certain groups: Pompeo

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The Trump administration on Tuesday expanded its anti-abortion policies, prohibiting U.S.-funded organizations from supporting other groups that support abortion and forbidding the use of U.S. tax dollars to lobby for or against abortion.

In 2017, Trump reinstated a policy known by critics as the “global gag rule,” which requires foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. family planning funds to certify they do not provide abortions or give abortion advice.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday the United States will expand the policy by cracking down on NGOs that fund other groups that support abortion.

The United States will also enforce the federal law forbidding the use of U.S. funding, including foreign assistance, to lobby for or against abortion, he added.

“We will refuse to provide assistance to foreign NGOs that give financial support to other foreign groups in the global abortion industry,” Pompeo told reporters.

He added that the United States will cut funding to the Organization of American States as a result of the expanded rule. “The institutions of OAS should be focused on addressing crises in Cuba, Nicaragua and in Venezuela, not advancing the pro-abortion cause,” he said.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Mississippi governor signs ‘heartbeat’ abortion ban

FILE PHOTO: Phil Bryant, governor of Mississippi, speaks during an election night party for Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S., November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

(Reuters) – Mississippi’s Republican governor signed one of America’s strictest abortion bills on Thursday banning women from obtaining an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can often occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Dubbed the ‘heartbeat bill,’ this is the second legislative attempt in less than a year aimed at restricting abortions in a state with a single abortion clinic.

In a tweet earlier this week, Governor Phil Bryant thanked the state’s legislature for “protecting the unborn” by passing the bill and sending it to him for his signature.

The Mississippi law joins a wave of similar Republican-backed measures recently introduced in Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia.

Conservative Republican proponents say these bills are intended to challenge Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

U.S. states are jostling for a showdown on abortion rights in 2019, with all eyes on the conservative-dominated Supreme Court.

Just last November, a U.S. federal judge struck down a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks, ruling that it “unequivocally” violates women’s constitutional rights.

The new Mississippi bill prohibits the abortion of a fetus with a detectable heartbeat, before the point where a woman may be aware she is pregnant.

It also states that any physician who violates the restriction is subject to losing the license to practice medicine.

The law makes exceptions for women whose health is at extreme risk. It is a victory for anti-abortion groups, but abortion rights advocates have promised to pursue legal action to overturn it.

“This ban is one of the most restrictive abortion bans signed into law, and we will take Mississippi to court to make sure it never takes effect,” Hillary Schneller, staff attorney at the global abortion rights advocacy group Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

“This ban, just like the 15-week ban the Governor signed a year ago is cruel and clearly unconstitutional.”

A fetus that is viable outside the womb, usually at 24 weeks, has widely been considered the threshold in the United States to prohibit an abortion.

Last week, a federal judge blocked Kentucky’s fetal heartbeat abortion law. An Iowa judge overturned that state’s heartbeat law in January after declaring it violated the state’s constitution.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Nick Carey and Richard Chang)

Court allows Ohio law blocking Planned Parenthood funding

FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured at the entrance to a Planned Parenthood building in New York August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

(Reuters) – A divided federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the constitutionality of an Ohio law to block state funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, in a victory for anti-abortion advocates.

By an 11-6 vote, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected arguments by Planned Parenthood affiliates that the law signed by Republican Governor John Kasich in 2016 barring funding for entities that perform abortions violated their due process rights.

“The affiliates are correct that the Ohio law imposes a condition on the continued receipt of state funds,” Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for the majority. “But that condition does not violate the Constitution because the affiliates do not have a due process right to perform abortions.”

Tuesday’s decision overturned a lower court injunction against the law, which the appeals court had upheld last April 18.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)

Kennedy’s departure puts abortion, gay rights in play at high court

FILE PHOTO: Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy speaks during a swearing in ceremony for Judge Neil Gorsuch as an associate justice of the Supreme Court in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, announced on Wednesday, could put some of his signature rulings in jeopardy, including ones that expanded or preserved gay rights and abortion rights.

Kennedy is a conservative, but he joined the court’s four liberals to cast deciding votes on several key social issues, most notably on gay marriage.

His successor will be picked by President Donald Trump from a White House list of 25 names recommended by conservative legal activists, and the new justice is likely to take a less liberal tack than Kennedy did on at least some issues. If so, he or she will provide a fifth vote for the court’s conservatives rather than its liberals – and over time reshape the U.S. legal landscape.

“It’s extremely likely President Trump is going to appoint someone who is not going to follow Justice Kennedy’s lead in those cases and will go even further in undermining constitutional rights and degrading the rule of law,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal leaning Constitutional Accountability Center.

Without Kennedy, she said, the court would have overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case establishing a woman’s right to abortion. It would also have prevented gay people from marrying and ended university admissions programs that take race into account, she said.

New cases on gay rights and abortion could reach the high court in short order.

Legal battles are already developing over newly enacted laws restricting abortion, including one in Arkansas that effectively bans medication abortions. The Supreme Court opted not to intervene in a case challenging that law in May, saying it would wait for lower courts to rule, but the issue is likely to return to the court in coming years.

Anti-abortion activists celebrated Kennedy’s announcement.

“Justice Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court marks a pivotal moment for the fight to ensure every unborn child is welcomed and protected,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List.

She noted that Trump has previously pledged “to nominate only pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.”

Another live issue expected to come back to the court is whether people who run businesses can refuse service to gay couples because of religious objections to same-sex marriage.

In an opinion this year by Kennedy in a case involving a Colorado bakery, the court on a 7-2 vote ruled narrowly on the issue, but it punted on the larger question of whether to allow religious-based exemptions to anti-discrimination laws. That issue could be back before the justices as soon as the court’s next term, which starts in October, in a case involving a Christian florist

Kennedy cast decisive votes backing gay rights on four occasions, most notably in 2015 when the court legalized same-sex marriage.

Gay rights activists, while praising Kennedy’s votes, expressed alarm about his departure from the bench.

“The Supreme Court has done a lot to change the position of LGBT people in America, but there are big open questions the court may well weigh in on in the future, so there’s a lot at stake,” said James Esseks, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who works on gay rights cases.

Esseks said he is hopeful the new justice will embrace recent legal victories in gay rights battles and urged senators to press the nominee on the issue during the confirmation process after Trump announces his pick.

Liberal advocacy groups had long feared Kennedy’s retirement, and his announcement provoked instant anxiety. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a nationwide abortion provider, said it was bracing for Trump to appoint a justice to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The significance of today’s news cannot be overstated: The right to access abortion in this country is on the line,” said Dawn Laguens, the group’s executive vice president.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Sue Horton)

Supreme court strikes down California law on anti-abortion centers

Anti-abortion activists (L-R) Terrisa Bukovinac, Megan Lott and Peter Hinman stand outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a California law requiring clinics that counsel women against abortion to notify clients of the availability of abortions paid for by the state, ruling it violated the free speech rights of these Christian-based facilities.

The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, and while the broader issue of abortion rights was not at issue in the case, the 5-4 ruling represented a significant victory for abortion opponents who operate these kinds of clinics – called crisis pregnancy centers – around the country.

The court’s five conservative justices were in the majority in the ruling authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, with the four liberals dissenting.

Crisis pregnancy centers have said they offer legitimate health services but that it is their mission to steer women with unplanned pregnancies away from abortion.

There are roughly 2,700 crisis pregnancy centers in the United States, including around 200 in California, according to abortion rights advocates, vastly outnumbering abortion clinics. California officials said some of the centers mislead women by presenting themselves as full-service reproductive healthcare facilities, going so far as to resemble medical clinics, down to lab coats worn by staff.

California’s Reproductive FACT Act, passed by a Democratic-led legislature and signed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in 2015, required centers licensed by the state as family planning facilities to post or distribute notices that the state has programs offering free or low-cost birth control, prenatal care and abortion services. The law also mandated unlicensed centers that may have no medical provider on staff to disclose that fact.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)