A Wyoming judge on Thursday temporarily blocked the first state law specifically banning the use of pills for abortion, the most common method in the country.
Just over a week before the ban was scheduled to take effect, Judge Melissa Owens of Teton County District Court granted a temporary restraining order, putting the law on hold pending further court proceedings.
Ruling from the bench after a hearing that lasted about two hours, Judge Owens said that the plaintiffs, who include four health care providers, “have clearly shown probable success on the merits and that at least some of the plaintiffs will suffer possible irreparable injury” if the ban were to take effect.
Medication abortion is already outlawed in states that have near-total bans, since those bans prohibit all forms of abortion. But Wyoming became the first state to outlaw the use of pills for abortion separate from an overall ban. The law was scheduled to take effect July 1.
The ban, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mark Gordon in March, makes it illegal to “prescribe, dispense, distribute, sell or use any drug for the purpose of procuring or performing an abortion.”
Doctors or anyone else found guilty of violating this law would be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in prison and a $9,000 fine. The law explicitly says that pregnant women would be exempt from charges and penalties.
In the year since the Supreme Court overturned the national right to abortion, Wyoming’s Republican-controlled Legislature has been trying to ban abortions in the state.
Last year, Judge Owens temporarily enjoined a near-total abortion ban, which she said appeared to contradict an amendment to Wyoming’s Constitution that guarantees adults the right to make their own health care decisions. An overwhelming majority of Wyoming citizens voted for that amendment in 2012.
In March, the Legislature passed and the governor signed another near-total ban on abortions that tried to circumvent that constitutional amendment by declaring that abortion is not health care. Judge Owens temporarily blocked that law soon after it was signed, saying she questioned the state’s contention that abortion is not health care.
The issue of whether abortion is health care was also a significant aspect of Thursday’s hearing on the medication abortion ban. Jay Jerde, a special assistant attorney general for Wyoming, argued that even though doctors and other health providers must be involved in abortions, there are many instances when “getting the abortion doesn’t implicate health care because it’s not restoring the woman’s body from pain, physical disease or sickness.”
Judge Owens questioned Mr. Jerde’s argument. “Essentially the government under this law is making the decision for a woman,” she said, “rather than the woman making her own health care choice, which is what the overwhelming majority in Wyoming decided that we should get to do.”
The plaintiffs in the case, who are challenging all of the bans in various lawsuits, include the only two abortion providers in Wyoming; an obstetrician-gynecologist who often treats high-risk pregnancies; an emergency room nurse; a fund that gives financing to abortion patients; and a woman who said her Jewish faith requires access to abortion if a pregnant woman’s physical or mental health or life is in danger.
A ban on medication abortion would have a substantial impact because pills have been the method used in almost all recent abortions in the state, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Marci Bramlet, told the court. Nationally, pills are now used in over half of abortions. Only one of Wyoming’s providers offers the other method, surgical abortions.
“The ban seeks to only ban medication abortions, not all abortions, completely undermining the state’s stated goal of preserving prenatal life, and allows surgical abortions which are more invasive physically, financially and logistically,” Ms. Bramlet told the court. “The statute tells women, ‘You can have an abortion in Wyoming but not using the safe, effective, F.D.A.-approved medication available.’”