A federal judge on Thursday blocked an Indiana law that would have banned abortions based solely on a fetus’s disability or genetic anomaly, suggesting that it was an illegal limit on a woman’s long-established constitutional right.
Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, of Federal District Court for Southern Indiana, also held up a state ban on abortions motivated solely by a fetus’s race or sex. In the preliminary injunction, Judge Pratt said limiting the reasons for an abortion was “inconsistent with the notion of a right rooted in privacy concerns and a liberty right to make independent decisions.”
While Judge Pratt’s injunction stops the law from taking immediate effect, and though she said the state would be unlikely to prevail at trial, the state can still defend the legislation. In a statement, the Indiana attorney general’s office said state lawyers would consider how to proceed and whether to appeal the injunction.
Indiana would have been the first state to have a blanket ban on abortions based solely on race, sex or suspected disabilities, including evidence of Down syndrome. A handful of states have bans on abortion based on sex, one state has a ban based on race, and two have bans based on genetic anomalies, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit abortion rights group that tracks state laws.
Judge Pratt’s decision, the first in a federal court to indicate that a ban on abortion because of genetic anomalies would likely be unconstitutional, is the latest setback for anti-abortion groups. It comes days after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in a Texas case that two other kinds of restrictions — requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and imposing stringent surgery-center standards on abortion clinics — are unconstitutional.
The Texas measures would have forced many clinics to shut down. In language that is expected to echo nationally, the Supreme Court held in its Monday ruling that the benefits of any such restrictions must be closely scrutinized and weighed against the burdens on women’s access to abortion.
Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement that “momentum from Monday’s landmark decision” was aiding in challenges to abortion restrictions in Indiana and elsewhere.
“These unconstitutional laws punish women, and we will bring them down, law by law and state by state,” Ms. Richards said. “We have been fighting these restrictions on all fronts for years, organizing in the field, building for this moment — and now the wind is at our backs.”
Kara Brooks, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Pence, said in a statement on Thursday that the governor was “disappointed” in the ruling and “remains steadfast in his support for the unborn, especially those with disabilities.”
Judge Pratt’s decision was also criticized in a statement by Indiana Right to Life, which noted that the jurist had been nominated by President Obama. That group’s chief executive, Mike Fichter, said the ruling “denied the civil rights of unborn children” and was “an appalling human rights injustice.”
Thursday’s case in Indiana was argued long before the new Supreme Court decision, and Judge Pratt’s opinion made no reference to it. Her ruling rested largely on the argument that the state, as established in a series of cases starting with Roe v. Wade in 1973, cannot impede a woman’s right to decide to have an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually at around 24 weeks. Judge Pratt said “irreparable harm” would have occurred had that part of the law taken effect as scheduled on Friday.
“Difficult moral and complicated health decisions are made by women whose pregnancies are affected by a prenatal fetal anomaly,” Judge Pratt wrote in her ruling. “Given the relatively short time frame in which women may elect to terminate a pregnancy, even a short disruption of a woman’s ability to do so could have significant consequences.”
Indiana’s law, signed in March by Mr. Pence, was framed by abortion foes and legislative Republicans as a way to prevent discrimination in abortions, in particular the fetuses with Down syndrome. Mr. Pence, a Republican, said that he signed the law “with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers and families.”
But the local chapters of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the measure, claiming the law posed an undue burden to women and restricted freedom of speech, and asking Judge Pratt for the preliminary injunction she issued on Thursday. That injunction also sets aside a portion of the law that imposed new restrictions for disposing of fetal remains.
Indiana’s law was exceptional for its breadth, but the restrictions it included were not unprecedented. Such legislation has become more common and has gained traction in many Republican-dominated statehouses. Dawn Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor who has pushed for abortion rights, said Thursday’s injunction was an important step toward invalidating such legislation.
“It’s very strong reaffirmation of the constitutional right as the Supreme Court has interpreted it, but applied to new, creative, harmful restrictions,” Ms. Johnsen said.
The Indiana measure had been controversial from the start, and Mr. Pence waited until his deadline before signing it into law. In the weeks that followed, abortion rights supporters rallied outside the Capitol against the law and started an online “Periods for Pence” campaign that encouraged women to tell the governor about their reproductive health.