AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to hear a challenge to an Arkansas abortion law. The law makes access to abortions more difficult. The result is that Arkansas is now the only state in the country that bans abortion by pill. The method is certified by the Food and Drug Administration as just as safe as surgical abortions but with fewer side effects. The Supreme Court's decision not to intervene in the case at this point, however, is not final, as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Abortion rights advocates had trumpeted the Arkansas case as the first big test of the Supreme Court's 2016 decision striking down key provisions of a Texas law that the justices said imposed an undue and unjustified burden on women's access to abortion. Arkansas maintained that its law was different because it barred medically induced abortion using pills instead of surgical instruments unless the clinic had a contract with a doctor who had admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Planned Parenthood challenged the law in court, noting that the admitting privileges requirement was similar to the one struck down by the Supreme Court in the Texas case. They pointed to a survey it had conducted of the state's OB-GYNs that found none willing to endure the public disclosure and consequent harassment and threats if they contracted to provide admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
Federal Judge Kristine Baker in Little Rock then issued a preliminary injunction. In blocking the Arkansas law from going into effect, she cited that survey and the Supreme Court's ruling in the Texas case. She said that any complications resulting from an abortion procedure can routinely be dealt with by a hospital emergency room. The benefits of the law were few at best, she said, and outweighed by the burdens imposed on women seeking abortions.
But a three-judge panel of federal appeals court judges, all appointed by President George W. Bush, disagreed. They allowed the law to go into effect and send it back to Judge Baker to determine the number of women burdened by the statute. At that point, Planned Parenthood appealed to the Supreme Court, seeking and failing to get the high court to review the appeals court ruling. Helene Krasnoff, director of litigation for Planned Parenthood, said the results of the Supreme Court's action are stark. For now, Arkansas is the only state in the country that's barred abortion by pill.
HELENE KRASNOFF: Women were called today and sent away. They have closed two of the three providers. They've banned medication abortion. So it's not like some procedural game - right? - I mean, in terms of what this really means.
TOTENBERG: The justices did not explain why they chose not to intervene at this stage, but no justice recorded a dissent. That would strongly suggest that the reasons were procedural rather than substantive, in short, that the court didn't want to intervene before there was a final judgment in the case. Indeed, Planned Parenthood said today it would immediately ask Judge Baker to make the findings requested by the federal appeals court.
It's worth noting that the justices chose not to intervene in the Texas case at a similar stage with similar results in 2013 - 24 of the 41 Texas abortion providers were forced to close their doors. And although the Supreme Court subsequently struck down the law, fewer than a handful of those shuttered clinics have reopened.
As of today, the only clinic in Arkansas equipped to provide surgical abortions is in Little Rock, meaning that patients in other parts of the state will have to travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion. Abortion by pill right now is a method that's been found extremely safe with complications in only one-fifth of 1 percent of the cases - a far lower rate of complications than carrying a child to term. As for the Supreme Court, expect more cases like this from other states next term. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.