The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the suit on behalf of Dr. Louis Jerry Edwards and Dr. Tom Tvedten, who provide abortions at a Little Rock clinic, say Arkansas' ban clearly contradicts the standard of viability established by the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
"We are asking the court to block an attempt to essentially outlaw all abortions past 12 weeks, so early that a woman might not know the complete health and status of her pregnancy," Rita Sklar, executive director of Arkansas' ACLU chapter, said at a news conference.
When the Republican-led Legislature passed the law last month, it was briefly the most restrictive abortion law in the country, including a near-ban at 20 weeks that it passed a week earlier. In each case, lawmakers overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who predicted that neither law would stand up in court and that Arkansas would waste money defending them.
North Dakota has since passed and even tighter restriction: 6 weeks.
The lawsuit contends that Edwards and Tvedten could lose their licenses if they provide abortions starting at the 12th week of pregnancy, meaning the law denies "patients their constitutionally-guaranteed right to decide to end a pre-viability pregnancy." It names members of the State Medical Board as defendants because the board is responsible for licensing medical professionals.
Arkansas' 12-week ban is tied to the date at which a fetal heartbeat can typically be detected by an abdominal ultrasound. The ban includes exemptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother and highly lethal fetal disorders.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday does not challenge Arkansas' 20-week measure, as challenges to similar laws in other states are already pending. The 20-week ban is based on the disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain by the 20th week and therefore deserves protection from abortion. It includes the same exemptions as the 12-week ban, except for fetal disorders.
Rose Mimms, the executive director of Arkansas Right to Life, said anti-abortion groups like hers are hopeful that the new abortion restrictions being passed in conservative-leaning states will land before the U.S. Supreme Court and be considered against new discoveries regarding fetal development.
"They didn't have that kind of information when they decided Roe v. Wade," Mimms said, referring to the 1973 decision that legalized abortion until a fetus could viably survive outside the womb. A fetus is generally considered viable at 22 to 24 weeks.
Arkansas' ban on abortions at 20 weeks took effect immediately when legislators overrode Beebe's veto. The 12-week ban is scheduled to take effect 90 days after the Legislature formally adjourns, which is expected to happen next month.
Sklar said the Supreme Court has recognized that the Constitution protects a woman's ability to make her own decision regarding abortions.
"But our state Legislature ignored the law and voted to take a woman's decision-making ability away," Sklar said.
A lead sponsor of the 12-week ban, Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert, said he hadn't seen the lawsuit yet, but he said it wasn't a surprise.
"We definitely are planning to defend it," he said. "It's a law duly passed by the state of Arkansas."
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.