The state's largest abortion provider is asking a judge to block new restrictions on procedure imposed by the Legislature.
Legal papers filed late Tuesday in Maricopa County Superior Court contend it is unconstitutional for lawmakers to prohibit physicians' assistants and specially trained nurse practitioners from performing abortions. Attorneys for Planned Parenthood Arizona want the court to block the law from taking effect as scheduled on July 20, allowing time for the issue to be fully litigated.
At the center of the claim is the decision by lawmakers in two separate measures to essentially redefine what constitutes an abortion.
Surgical abortions, those where a fetus has to be manually extracted, can be performed only by doctors.
But until now, state law has allowed physicians' assistants and nurse practitioners to perform medical abortions. That involves administering RU-486, a drug which subsequently induces an abortion.
Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said the legislation simply expands protections that already exist for women who undergo surgical abortions.
She said about half of all pregnancies are terminated through the use of RU-486, which became legal in this country only slightly more than a decade ago.
"Do we have to wait for another woman to die from an abortion to update our statutes to cover abortion by pill?" she asked colleagues during the legislative debate. "The answer is, we don't. And we shouldn't. The dangers of abortion medication are well documented."
If nothing else, Barto said a woman should have to be examined by a physician before being administered a drug.
But Planned Parenthood President Bryan Howard said the legislation is more about politics than health. He said it is designed largely to impose new restrictions on the procedure.
"This is about women accessing basic health care that has been provided safely for over a decade by nurse practitioners and physicians' assistants with no evidence, no medical evidence, that that situation needs to change," Howard said. He said there have been "no complications, no problems here in Arizona."
That's not the belief of Rep. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix.
"Medication abortions have very serious complications and are not a safer alternative," she said during the legislative debate. "In fact, instructions for the abortion pill say nearly all women who receive the abortion pill will report adverse reaction."
But Yee conceded on the House floor that she is in favor of doing what she can to reduce the number of abortions.
"I vowed to stand up for populations that can not otherwise speak for themselves," she said. "So this bill speaks up for the rights of the unborn, our most precious population, and for women, their health and their safety."
The most immediate effect of the law, if and when it takes effect, would be to eliminate the ability of Planned Parenthood to provide medical abortions in Flagstaff, Prescott and Yuma. Howard said his organization does not have enough trained physicians to staff those offices.
But the lawsuit said it will also create problems in the state's two major metropolitan areas, as women who otherwise would have a medical abortion at one of the satellite clinics staffed by a nurse practitioner or physicians' assistant would now have to go to where a doctor is located.
That, the attorneys said, would cause unnecessary delays. And they said any delay not only increases the medical risk but also the cost of the procedure.
Howard acknowledged that the Legislature routinely redefines what is the "scope of practice" of various medical and professional specialties. But he argued there are limits on what lawmakers can do.
He pointed out that the Arizona Constitution, unlike its federal counterpart, has a specific clause guaranteeing the right to privacy. Howard said that includes the right of women to decide their own "reproductive health" issues.
Howard said this legislation eliminates that right in rural Arizona communities, "particularly when there's no medical justification for it."