Abortion law facing halt

The federal judge has said he will issue a restraining order on the new law Friday.
Thursday, October 9, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:38 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 15, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A federal judge said Wednesday he will block a new Missouri law that would have required physicians to wait 24 hours after consulting a woman before performing an abortion.

Senior U.S. District Judge Scott O. Wright plans to issue the temporary restraining order against the law on Friday — one day before the abortion law was to take effect, said Kansas City attorney Arthur Benson, who represents Comprehensive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

The decision came during a private telephone conference the judge held Wednesday with attorneys for the state and Planned Parenthood affiliates, including Benson, who had challenged the law on grounds it is unconstitutionally vague and broad.

The judge scheduled a Jan. 27 hearing in Jefferson City on whether to issue a preliminary or permanent injunction against the law, which the Legislature enacted Sept. 11 by overriding the veto of Gov. Bob Holden.

Rep. Therese Sander, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said she wasn’t surprised by Wright’s decision.

“That’s standard procedure for opponents to the pro-life movement,” Sander, of Moberly, said.

Sander said she and other lawmakers anticipated a strong challenge and modified original drafts of the bill to make it as agreeable as possible.

“This law was modeled after laws in other states that passed constitutional muster,” Sander said. “We turned down some amendments, like speaking about abortion alternatives, because they would hamper a smooth ride through the judicial process.”

Under the law, physicians must wait 24 hours to perform an abortion after conferring with women about “the indicators and contra-indicators and risk factors, including any physical, psychological or situational factors.”

The so-called “informed consent” law allows violating physicians to be charged with misdemeanors punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Because of the alleged vagueness in the law, doctors could be subject to prosecution every time they provide an abortion, the lawsuit contends.

The judge’s ruling will mean a continuation of the status quo — at least until January’s hearing — in Missouri’s abortion procedures.

“The act is so extraordinarily vague that we are pleased that Planned Parenthood physicians are now protected from having to guess at the meaning of criminal statutes that could cost them dearly if they guessed wrong,” Benson said.

Attorney General Jay Nixon, who is defending the state law, will not comment until the judge’s order actually is issued, said spokesman Scott Holste.

Sander would not speculate whether legislators would rewrite the bill if Wright grants a permanent injunction Jan. 27. But she said anti-abortion activists would not readily accept defeat from the judicial system.

“I’m always prepared to continue the fight to protect life,” Sander said.

Some anti-abortion advocates have said they are prepared for a long legal battle.

“We’re disappointed but not surprised that Judge Wright did this,” said Sam Lee, a lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri. “But we’re confident that ultimately the law will be upheld and will come into effect.”

In 1999, Missouri lawmakers overrode Gov. Mel Carnahan’s veto of a bill banning certain late term abortions, commonly called “partial-birth” abortions. An injunction has prevented that law from taking effect, but the case still is pending in the court system.

Citing that case, Lee said it could take two or three years to resolve the legal dispute about Missouri’s latest abortion law.

“It’s frustrating for a lot of the grass-roots people, but they just have to understand that it sometimes takes a long time,” he said.

Missourian reporter Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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