Federal judge rules against several Indiana abortion laws

Aug 10, 2021, 3:26 AM | Updated: 6:34 pm

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that several of Indiana’s laws restricting abortion are unconstitutional, including the state’s ban on telemedicine consultations between doctors and women seeking abortions.

The judge’s ruling also upheld other state abortion limits that were challenged in a broad lawsuit filed by Virginia-based Whole Woman’s Health Alliance in 2018 as it fought the denial of a license to open an abortion clinic in South Bend.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued a permanent injunction against the telemedicine ban, along with state laws requiring in-person examinations by a doctor before medication abortions and the prohibition on second-trimester abortions outside hospitals or surgery centers. Barker also ruled against state laws requiring that women seeking abortions be told human life begins when the egg is fertilized and that a fetus might feel pain at or before 20 weeks.

The state attorney general, whose office has been defending those laws in court, said Barker’s ruling contradicted higher court decisions and pointed toward a possible appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals,

“We will continue to fight to defend Indiana’s commonsense abortion laws and to build a culture of life in Indiana,” Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita said in a statement.

The anti-abortion group Indiana Right to Life denounced the decision as “judicial activism at its absolute worst.”

“This is a horrific ruling that will directly lead to a massive expansion of chemical and late term abortions in Indiana,” organization President Mike Fichter said in a statement. “The sweeping blockage of these common sense laws jeopardizes the health and safety of women, leaves women in the dark on issues of fetal pain and the development of human life.”

Amy Hagstrom Miller, President and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said “providing abortion care in Indiana has not been easy” and that the group was “grateful to the courts for upholding the right to evidence-based abortion care by overturning these unjust and burdensome regulations.”

Barker, who was nominated as a federal judge in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan, wrote that the state didn’t have the constitutional authority to restrict the use of virtual telemedicine services to women seeking medication abortions without providing evidence that it benefitted women’s health.

“The State’s attempt to explain its basis for excluding the far-reaching benefits of telemedicine from this category of patients is feeble at best, especially given the widespread use of telemedicine throughout Indiana as well as the overall safety of medication abortions,” Barker wrote.

Drug-induced abortions for the first time made up a majority of abortion procedures in Indiana during 2020, according to a state health department report. Medication abortions represented 55% of Indiana’s total of 7,756 abortions last year, about double the state’s rate from 2016.

Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed a law this year aimed at requiring doctors to tell women undergoing such abortions about a disputed “abortion reversal” treatment for potentially stopping the process. That law, however, was blocked by a different federal judge just before it was set to take effect July 1.

Barker ruled against state law provisions dating to 2011 that require doctors to tell women seeking abortions that human life begins when the egg is fertilized and that a fetus might feel pain at or before 20 weeks.

Barker found the requirement about when life begins was unconstitutional and wrote that “this mandatory disclosure does not communicate truthful and non-misleading information.”

The judge did uphold state laws requiring an ultrasound be performed on the woman 18 hours before an abortion procedure, allowing abortion counseling by only physicians and advance practice clinicians and criminal penalties for violating state abortion restrictions.

Indiana’s Legislature has adopted numerous abortion restrictions over the past decade, with several later blocked by court challenges.

Among those challenges, Barker ruled in 2019 against the state’s ban on a common second-trimester abortion procedure that the legislation called “dismemberment abortion.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 also rejected Indiana’s appeal of a lower court ruling that blocked the state’s ban on abortion based on gender, race or disability. However, it upheld a portion of the 2016 law signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence requiring the burial or cremation of fetal remains after an abortion.

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Federal judge rules against several Indiana abortion laws