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Missouri abortion law blocked by federal judge again

A federal judge double-downed on his decision to prevent Missouri’s sweeping abortion law from fully going into effect Wednesday and denied a partial stay that would have implemented a 20-week ban. 

U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs placed a temporary restraining order on a portion of HB 126 — which bans abortions after eight weeks except in cases of a medical emergency — just before it was set to be implemented in August. The law also included “nestled” components, designed to withstand legal challenges, with restrictions at 14, 18, and 20 weeks. 

Even then, Sachs said the 20-week restriction would cause “significant interference with plaintiffs’ service and the rights of its prospective patients, so it should be considered quite adequate as harm to justify immediate relief from the defective provisions of [HB 126].”

In his decision Wednesday, Sachs said allowing the 20-week restriction to go into place would undermine 40 years of Supreme Court precedent. 

“There is no such legal right in the Federal Court system for preserving the potential lives of non-viable fetuses,” Sachs said in his order. “While the State Defendants may hope for a change in law, an ‘obedient judge’ has an obligation to give weight to the current recognized legal right, rather than a legally rejected right (prior to viability).” 

The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion case, made viability a central part of the abortion debate. It said a woman has a guaranteed right to privacy, including to make her own medical decisions, as long as a fetus is not considered to be viable. 

Typically, viability has been considered to be around 24 weeks although babies have survived after being born earlier. 

Jesse Lawder, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, pointed to the Republicans in Missouri’s executive branch who played a role in the abortion law, arguing they knew “these abortion bans are unconstitutional.” 

“When Governor [Mike] Parson signed HB 126 into law, he did so knowing these abortion bans are unconstitutional. When Secretary [Jay] Ashcroft slow-walked approval of ballot initiatives to overturn HB 126, he did so knowing these bans were unconstitutional. And when Attorney General [Eric] Schmitt sent taxpayer-funded lawyers to defend HB 126 in court, he did so knowing these abortion bans are unconstitutional.” 

“In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the state of Missouri who doesn’t think these abortion bans are unconstitutional,” he said. 

Sen. Bob Onder, a Republican senator who was instrumental in the crafting of the legislation, said he was “disappointed” in the judge’s decision. The 20-week provision, Onder said, was designed as a “pain-capable protection measure.” 

“The hope was such a protection would withstand constitutional challenges,” Onder told The Missouri Times. 

Both Onder and Sam Lee, director of the pro-life Campaign Life Missouri group, said they were hopeful Sachs’ decision would ultimately be reversed. The state has appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit, but a court date has not yet been set. 

“Most Americans oppose abortions at 20 weeks and later,” Lee told The Missouri Times. “Missouri law is consistent with the values of Missourians who want to protect unborn human life.” 

Sachs was appointed to the court by former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. He allowed some provisions of HB 126 to be implemented — at least for now — including a so-called “reason ban” prohibiting abortions on the basis of sex, race, or a diagnosis of Down syndrome. HB 126 also bans abortions outright should Roe v. Wade be overturned. That remained in place. 

The law also included an increase in medical malpractice coverage for physicians providing abortion services and an increase in tax credits for pregnancy resource centers. 

Missouri only has one facility able to provide abortion services which is embroiled in a legal battle with the state. The case is set to be heard by the Administrative Hearing Commission next month.