On Friday, March 14, a federal judge struck down Arkansas’s ban on most abortions beginning 12 weeks into a woman’s pregnancy. U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright argued that viability – not a heartbeat – remains the key factor in determining the constitutionality of abortions. Judge Wright cited previous court decisions stating that abortions may not be restricted until after the fetus is capable of viable life outside of the womb – typically at 24 weeks. She wrote that the law, “impermissibly infringes on a woman’s 14th Amendment right to elect to terminate a pregnancy before viability.” The judge maintained that the state presented no evidence that a fetus can live outside the womb at 12 weeks. According to Judge Wright’s decision, only a doctor could determine viability. She did leave in place a portion of the law requiring doctors to check for a fetal heartbeat and notify the pregnant woman.
In March 2013, when Arkansas passed this law banning abortion based on fetal heartbeat and not medical viability, it was the toughest ban on abortion to date (North Dakota has since passed a law that is on hold banning abortions after six weeks). Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe vetoed the measure, but was subsequently overruled by the legislature. The ban did include exemptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother, and highly lethal fetal disorders. Nonetheless, the Arkansas ban represents another effort by the anti-abortion coalition to chip away at a woman’s right to choose.