A federal appeals court appeared poised Tuesday to continue blocking the nation's strictest restrictions on the use of abortion drugs, questioning the constitutionality of the Arizona rules a month after putting them on hold.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from the state and Planned Parenthood Arizona, which sued to stop the rules from taking effect. The court issued an injunction in April, saying women likely would suffer irreparable harm if the restrictions were allowed to take effect. Arizona argued that the rules aim to safeguard women and follow Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
The regulations ban women from taking the most common abortion-inducing drug — RU-486 — after the seventh week of pregnancy. Women had been allowed to take the abortion pill through nine weeks of pregnancy.
The rules also require that the drug be administered only at the FDA-approved dosage and that both doses be taken at a clinic. The usual dosage is lower and now usually taken at home, decreasing the cost and chance of complications.
On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood argued for to keep the injunction in place while its lawsuit was pending. Two of three judges expressed a willingness to continue the ban while questioning the constitutionality of the rules enacted by the Arizona Legislature.
"One could look at this legislation as pretextual and an effort to flat out reduce the number of abortions by any means," Judge Susan Graber said. "That's one concern I have."
Arizona Solicitor General Robert Ellman denied the claim and argued the rules were put in place to protect women's health.
"The primary, if not the sole purpose, of this legislation is maternal health," Ellman argued. Ellman said the rules follow FDA guidelines. Furthermore, he argued that alternative types of abortions remain available in Arizona.
Judge William Fletcher pointed out that 8 percent of women who follow the FDA guidelines require follow-up surgical procedures, while that rate falls to 2 percent for women who take the drugs at lower doses. Most doctors prescribe lower doses than the FDA recommends.
Planned Parenthood lawyer Alice Chapman called the new requirement an "undue burden" for many women, especially those who live in Northern Arizona and those who live more than 100 miles from the nearest clinic. She also said the rules affect women who have an aversion to surgical abortions but are in their eighth and ninth weeks of pregnancy.
Chapman said the new rules are "less effective, much more expensive and expose women to unnecessary side effects."
The regulations were released in January by state health officials. The Arizona Legislature approved the rules in 2012, and they took effect for one day in April.
The 9th Circuit will issue a written ruling in the coming weeks.
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