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Federal appeals court rejects Arkansas’ 12-week abortion ban

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A federal appeals court struck down a key abortion restriction in Arkansas on Wednesday, agreeing with a lower court judge that it was inappropriate to ban most abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat.

The decision from the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hinged on what’s called the viability standard, or when a fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb. The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade, has generally held that standard to be 28 weeks. Abortion rights groups fighting the Arkansas law have cited a 24-week standard.

The three-judge panel, however, cautioned that the viability standard is becoming increasingly difficult to apply and cited the birth of a girl in Miami last year at 21 weeks and six days.

“Undeniably, medical and technological advances along with mankind’s ever increasing knowledge of prenatal life … make application of (the) viability standard more difficult,” the court wrote.

Arkansas already has one of the strictest abortion restrictions in the nation and is one of 12 states that ban most abortions at 20 weeks, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. Legislation to restrict abortion at 20 weeks or another specific gestational age has been enacted this year in West Virginia and proposed in 12 other states.

In its ruling Wednesday, the court did not address North Dakota’s proposed six-week ban, which was argued in January on the same day the panel took up the Arkansas case.

Arkansas lawmakers approved the law, dubbed the “Human Heartbeat Protection Act,” in 2013. U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock struck down the law before it took effect, but she left in place parts of the law that required doctors to tell women if a fetal heartbeat was present. The appeals court affirmed how Wright handled the case.

Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represented the two doctors who challenged the law, said the decision leaves medical decisions to doctors and their patients, rather than politicians. She called the ban a waste of taxpayer time.

“We were kind of surprised it took as long as it did, frankly,” Sklar said. “From our point of view it was a pretty simple case.”

A spokesman with the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

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