OMAHA, Neb. — A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a new Nebraska law requiring mental health screenings for women seeking abortions because the measure could have made it impossible to get an abortion in the state.
U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp granted Planned Parenthood of the Heartland's request for a preliminary injunction against the law, which was supposed to take effect Thursday. The order will prevent the state from enforcing the law until the lawsuit challenging it is decided.
State officials have said the law is designed to make sure women understand the risks and complications that may accompany an abortion.
Smith Camp said the evidence presented so far showed that the screening law would make it harder for women to get an abortion in Nebraska by requiring screenings that could be impossible to perform under a literal reading of the law. She also said the law would make doctors who perform abortions at risk of crippling lawsuits.
"The effect of LB 594 will be to place substantial, likely insurmountable, obstacles in the path of women seeking abortions in Nebraska," Smith Camp said.
The judge said Planned Parenthood's arguments that the law was vague and could be cumbersome were persuasive, and the potential harm the law could do made a preliminary injunction appropriate.
"Plaintiffs have presented substantial evidence that the disclosures mandated by LB 594, if applied literally, will require medical providers to give untruthful, misleading and irrelevant information to patients," Smith Camp said in her ruling.
Planned Parenthood had argued the law would be difficult to comply with and could require doctors to give information irrelevant to abortions. Jill June, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, praised the ruling.
"This is an important first step to preserve quality health care for women in Nebraska," June said.
The new screening law would represent a step backward, June said, so she's glad it won't take effect. But June said she regrets that the state and her organization are spending money on the legal fight over this law instead of on improving health care in Nebraska.
Shannon Kingery, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Attorney General's office, declined to discuss the details of Wednesday's ruling. She said the AG's office would respect the judge's order, but the AG has a duty to defend the measure.
The law would require women wanting abortions to be screened by doctors or other health professionals to determine whether they were pressured into having the procedure. Women also would have to be screened for risk factors indicating if they could have mental or physical problems after an abortion.
The risks could be "physical, psychological, emotional, demographic, or situational," according to the law.
The new law says if a screening wasn't performed or was performed inadequately, a woman with mental or physical problems resulting from an abortion could file a civil lawsuit. Doctors would not face criminal charges or lose their medical licenses.
The mental health screening measure is one of two controversial abortion laws passed by state lawmakers this spring that Gov. Dave Heineman signed.
The other one would ban abortions starting at 20 weeks based on assertions from some doctors that fetuses feel pain at that stage of development. It's scheduled to go into effect on October 15.
U.S. District Court of Nebraska: http://www.ned.uscourts.gov
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/heartland
Nebraska Attorney General: http://www.ago.state.ne.us