Arizona's Pro-Choice Movement Celebrates Two Major Legal Victories

Within a 24-hour period, both a state and federal judge handed down two separate decisions about medication abortions in Arizona —- decisions plaintiffs are calling "major victories for the pro-choice movement, women, and the reproductive health of women in Arizona."

In the first, a 2012 state law that placed restrictions on medication abortions was deemed unconstitutional, and in the second, a federal judge blocked a law that required doctors performing them to inform their patients about a reversal procedure that many in the medical community consider junk science.

Plaintiffs in both cases include: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and a series of smaller private law firms.

medication abortion uses two pills to terminate pregnancy. The first, Mifepristone, causes the lining of the uterus to break down, and the second, Misoprostol, causes the uterus to empty.

Medication abortions have been used safely for more than a decade and are considered less invasive than other "in-clinic procedures." What's more, the procedure works 97 percent of the time, and according to Planned Parenthood, 25 percent of women deciding to have abortions chose this method nationally — in Arizona, it's closer to half. 
Despite science's showing that medication abortions are safe and effective, the pro-life movement in the Arizona, led largely by Cathi Herrod's Center for Arizona Policy and her allies in state government, has worked tirelessly to limit a woman's access to the procedure. 

As David Brown from the Center for Reproductive Rights explains: “Whether by restricting a safe method of ending an early pregnancy or [by] forcing doctors to lie to their patients, Arizona politicians have made it their mission to cut off access to safe and legal abortion."

One of the first attempts to restrict access came in the form of a 2012 state law, which mandated that doctors administering medication abortions follow the Food and Drug Administration guidelines for using the pills — something that would seem logical, except that in the years since those guidelines were issued, the medical community has disproved some of the provisions. 

"FDA protocol has never kept up with [medication-abortion] practices," Jodi Liggett of Planned Parenthood Arizona tells New Times.

According to the FDA, the pills could only be administered within the first seven weeks of pregnancy, and a woman needed to visit her doctor on three separate occasions to complete the procedure. Meanwhile, evidence shows that a woman can safety take the pill until the ninth week of her pregnancy and that the whole procedure can be done in two visits to the doctor.

The plaintiffs sued the state immediately after the law was passed, and Phoenix Superior Court Judge J. Richard Gama ruled the law unconstitutional this week, saying it was an overreach of legislative authority.

Liggett calls the decision "a big victory [because] the law would have severely limited women's access to safe and legal abortions.

In a statement released today, Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says she is "pleased" about the ruling, but she adds that "the attack on women’s access to safe, legal abortion in Arizona is far from over."
Hours after issuing the statement, the second victory for the pro-choice movement came down from U.S. District Judge Steven Logan.

Logan upheld a motion for an injunction, thereby blocking another Arizona law about medication abortions that passed earlier this year.

"[The situation] is a little confusing because both cases concerned laws about reigning in the possibility of medication abortion, but they were about two very different things, and it's totally coincidental that they came out in same week,"ACLU of Arizona chief attorney Daniel Pochoda tells New Times.

The 2015 law, which Pochoda and Liggett say is based on "junk science," mandates that doctors tell their patients  undergoing medication abortions that the procedure can still be reversed after the first pill is taken. They are challenging the law under the first amendment, arguing that it limits doctors' free speech.

The law — the first of its kind to pass in the United States — was based on the research of a California doctor George Delgado. In his work, Delgado claims that that 60 percent of women who take large doses of progesterone after taking the first of two medication-abortion pills can safely remain pregnant. 
Problem is, his critics say, the study involved just six women and has been opposed by the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, among others.

“This junk-science law would force doctors to lie to their patients and put women’s health at risk. In no other area of medicine would this stand — which is why we’re fighting in Arizona and across the country for women’s access to accurate information and safe, quality care,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, explains in a statement.

"Because the topic here is abortion, our policy makers are allowed to do whatever they want," Liggett says. "They say, 'golly, it's just information.' Well, it's information without any basis in fact, and that's dangerous for two reasons:

"First and foremost, with regard to this very important decision women make, they should be absolutely resolved in their minds about their decision. So we think it's dangerous for us to be opening up a conversation [about how] if they change their minds, they can [reverse it mid-way through]," she says. "And secondly, there are ongoing questions about the medical safety of using progesterone in the way that's being recommended in this wacky protocol."

The plaintiffs filed for a preliminary injunction earlier this year, and the state agreed to it last week, causing Judge Logan to suggest that the issue go to trial as soon as possible. He set the trial for next week, but the state objected, explaining that its primary expert lacked the "publication and research background and experience" to be qualified as an expert witness.

"You can infer based on their need for more time that they don't have their case together," Liggett says. "In a case like this, expert witnesses are a key piece." 

As for the plaintiffs, both she and Pochoda say they are ready to go to trial as soon as possible because, they say, science is on their side.

"While we're confident we'll prevail, it's always accompanied by this reluctance," Liggett adds. "It's such a huge waste of time and taxpayer dollars...In the end, Arizona taxpayers will end up paying twice [for this case]. First, to pay the Attorney General's fees and then again when we win, [and] the state has to cover our attorneys' fees.

"I think if people fully understood that, they be less tolerant of this nonsense."  

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser