A federal judge has temporarily blocked Louisiana from enforcing its restrictive new abortion law. But lawyers and advocates appeared to disagree about whether the judge's order affects doctors at all five abortion clinics in the state or only those at three clinics whose lawsuit challenges the measure.
U.S. District Judge John deGravelles wrote that authorities cannot enforce the law until he holds a hearing on whether an order to block it is needed while the case remains in court.
The law requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of their clinics. The lawsuit claims doctors haven't had enough time to obtain the privileges and the law likely would close all five clinics.
"Today's ruling ensures Louisiana women are safe from an underhanded law that seeks to strip them of their health and rights," Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the groups representing two northwest Louisiana clinics, one in suburban New Orleans, and doctors at those clinics, said in a news release.
But Kyle Duncan, representing state Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert, said it covers only the plaintiffs - not clinics in New Orleans and Baton Rouge or the doctors who work at those clinics.
"That doesn't mean the state is on Monday just going to go out and try to enforce the act," he said in a phone interview from Washington. "I have no indication that's the state's intention."
Center for Reproductive Rights spokeswoman Jennifer R. Miller, asked specifically whether the order covered only the plaintiffs, wrote, "We are still analyzing the decision."
DeGravelles' order states that "any enforcement" of the law is forbidden until a hearing. However, his next sentences state that the law will go into effect but plaintiffs cannot be penalized for practicing without admitting privileges during this period while their applications are still pending.
The judge said he will call a status conference within 30 days to check on the progress of the plaintiffs' applications and to schedule a hearing to consider a request for an order blocking the law while the case is in court.
For now, the doctors' risk of $4,000 fines and losing their licenses outweighs any possible injury to the state from keeping the status quo, he wrote. That's especially true, he wrote, because Louisiana's health secretary has said she doesn't plan to enforce the law any doctors who don't yet have a final decision on their hospital applications.
However, deGravelles wrote, neither Kliebert nor the head of the Board of Medical Examiners promised that they would never prosecute those doctors later for violations that occurred starting Monday.
Duncan said that if he'd been asked during the hearing about retroactive enforcement, "I'm fairly certain we would have said, 'Of course we're not going to retroactively enforce the law.' ... I did not think Secretary Kliebert's declaration was ambiguous on that point."
She filed two statements saying that the law won't be enforced against any doctors who can show they submitted applications for admitting privileges during the 81 days between June 12, when it was signed, and Monday, he said.
But the judge wrote that, on that point, the case is very similar to one in Mississippi, where a federal appeals court overturned a similar law.
However, deGravelles wrote, clinics' lawyers have not proven that enforcing the law would shut down most, if not all, of Louisiana's clinics, eliminating access to legal abortions in Louisiana. Because the doctors' applications haven't all been acted on and the attorneys don't represent two clinics, that's speculative, he said.
"How many patients do these other two facilities treat? How many doctors practice there? How many of these doctors have applied for admitting privileges and what is the status of their applications?" he wrote. He said he needs answers to those and other questions, including how far patients would have to travel for care if the other two clinics stayed open.
Admitting privileges laws have passed across the South.
A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, upheld a similar Texas law. But in July, a different panel of the 5th Circuit voted to overturn Mississippi's law, which would have shuttered the state's only abortion clinic, saying every state must guarantee the right to an abortion.