By Steve Gorman
July 20 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday blocked enforcement of a newly enacted Arkansas law banning all abortions except in medical emergencies until she had a chance to decide a legal challenge to the statute on its merits.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, sitting in state capital Little Rock, issued a preliminary injunction sought by opponents of the measure, one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the United States. It was due to take effect next Wednesday.
Passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature and signed into law in March by Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, the measure would make it a felony for doctors to perform an abortion unless it was necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman.
No exceptions are permitted for cases of rape or incest.
A lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of the measure was brought in May by the women's health provider Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Little Rock Planning Services, a clinic that performs abortions.
They have argued that the law would disproportionately impact minorities, lower-income women and those living in rural areas, all of whom face higher barriers to reproductive healthcare.
Baker ruled the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits of the case in showing the law posed a "categorically unconstitutional" restriction to a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy before the fetus is considered viable outside of the womb.
Baker said the state has made no arguments to the contrary and instead took the position that the U.S. Supreme Court wrongly decided its 1973 landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed a woman's right to abortion before viability, at around 24-28 weeks of gestation.
In her 21-page opinion, Baker also held that women seeking abortions in Arkansas faced irreparable harm if the statute in question were allowed to take effect while the challenge to it remained under review. The judge noted that Arkansas ranks as the fifth-poorest among the 50 U.S. states.
Like many other abortion restrictions enacted in Republican-led states in recent years, the Arkansas ban is part of a conservative effort to prompt the Supreme Court to roll back Roe v. Wade as the court's balance has tipped further to the right.
The governor himself said when he signed the law that it was intended to "set the stage for the Supreme Court overturning current case law."
The high court has signaled it was open to that possibility in May when it agreed to review Mississippi's bid to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
According to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, the Arkansas legislature has passed 20 restrictions on abortion in 2021 alone, the highest number of any state in a single year since 1978, when Louisiana approved that many. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Michael Perry)
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