SEATTLE -- A federal judge has struck down an Idaho law prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks, ruling that the so-called fetal pain law violates U.S. Supreme Court prohibitions against unduly impeding a woman's ability to seek an abortion before her fetus is able to live outside the womb.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise declared the 2011 law -- similar to limits adopted in at least seven other states -- to be unconstitutional in a ruling that took the Idaho Legislature to task for acting against the advice of its own attorney general.
"The Idaho Legislature's enactment of the (fetal pain law) in light of this opinion is compelling evidence of the legislature's 'improper purpose' in enacting it," Winmill, an appointee of Bill Clinton, wrote in an opinion late Wednesday.
The plaintiff in the case, a single mother of three from Pocatello, was criminally charged after taking abortion-inducing medications and leaving the fetus on her back porch. She subsequently challenged the even-further-reaching laws adopted in Idaho after her own pregnancy.
"The purpose of the (law's) categorical ban is to protect the fetus -- not the mother," the judge said. "In essence, (the law) embodies a legislative judgment equating viability with 20 weeks' gestational age, which the Supreme Court expressly forbids."
The decision could be appealed, but plaintiffs said it marks the first time a federal court has struck down such laws which establish a limit on abortions tied not to the prevailing legal standard -- before the fetus is viable outside the womb -- but to a standard that disputed medical evidence suggests the fetus might be able to feel pain, firmly set in the case of the Idaho law at 20 weeks.
The Idaho law, the judge said, "is not designed to make women more informed. Rather, as the (law) categorically bans non-therapeutic abortions at and after 20 weeks, its clear purpose is simply to narrow the universe of previously allowable pre-viability abortions."