Wyoming judge blocks state abortion ban, citing anti-ObamaCare amendment pushed by conservatives

Abortion rights protest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Abortion rights protest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming Natalie Behring/Getty Images

A judge in Jackson, Wyoming, on Wednesday temporarily blocked a state abortion ban that took effect Sunday, saying it ran afoul of a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2012 that guarantees "each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions." Anti-abortion lawmakers had declared in the new law that abortion is not health care, in an attempt to get around the amendment, which the same jurist, Teton County Judge Melissa Owens, had cited in blocking a previous abortion ban last August.

Owens said the state Legislature was overstepping its authority. "Wyomingites voted into law that they have a fundamental right to make their own health care decisions," with potential "necessary and reasonable restrictions" that put "no undue government infringement upon those rights," Owens said Wednesday. "The Legislature declaring that abortion is not health care takes away from the duty of this court to decide constitutional questions of law, and that violates the separation of powers." The state, she added, "cannot legislate away a constitutional right."

The plaintiffs amended their lawsuit Tuesday to add a challenge to Wyoming's parallel ban on medication abortion, signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon (R) on Friday and set to take effect in July. (Gordon let the full abortion ban take effect without his signature.) The abortion pill ban will be considered at a separate hearing, but Owens sounded skeptical on Wednesday. The Food and Drug Administration regulates abortion pills, she told the state's lawyer, Jay Jerde. "How is a doctor actually prescribing those pills not health care?"

"Similar battles over the constitutionality of state abortion plans have been playing out in other conservative states," The New York Times notes. "In South Carolina and North Dakota, courts have ruled that abortion bans violate those states' constitutions. In Idaho, courts have upheld the state's abortion ban." A judge in Ohio blocked that state's ban, citing a 2011 voter-approved amendment to the Ohio constitution that, like Wyoming's, guarantees the right to make health care decisions, Bolts reports.

After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, in 2010, conservatives throughout the country "championed constitutional amendments that established individual rights to health care, which built on Republican messaging that the ACA deprived Americans of their ability to choose their own doctors and make medical decisions," Bolts reports. "Most of these amendments were written narrowly," but some — in Wyoming, Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and Oklahoma — carved out broader freedoms, and "now these anti-ACA provisions — and their broad affirmations of a right to decide — have turned into an unlikely weapon in progressives' fight against restrictions on abortion."

You can read more about the particulars of the Wyoming case in the Casper Star Tribune and The New York Times.

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