Wyoming judge considers putting state abortion ban on hold

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General view of the Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne, Wyoming. REUTERS/Nathan Layne

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(Reuters) - A Wyoming judge on Tuesday weighed whether to block a new state abortion ban from taking effect while she considers a legal challenge by women's healthcare providers and others.

Teton County District Judge Melissa Owens had already issued a temporary order blocking the law soon after the lawsuit was filed last month. It is set to expire Wednesday. At Tuesday's hearing, lawyers for the plaintiffs — including two doctors, a nurse, a women's health clinic and a female law student — urged the judge to extend that order.

"We are talking about cherished rights — the right to equality, the right to privacy, the right to determine one's family," said John Robinson of Robinson Welch Bramlet, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

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Robinson said Wyoming's constitution had strong protection for those rights, and that the court should preserve the status quo until the case is fully resolved.

Jay Jerde, a lawyer for the state, said the law, which would ban all abortions with narrow exceptions for rape, incest or to save the mother's life, did not infringe on any right guaranteed by the state constitution.

"What they're really saying is the right to abortion is fundamental, and it simply is not," he said.

Owens expressed strong concerns about whether the law was too vague about when exactly a woman's life was in enough danger to trigger the exception, or how healthcare providers could be sure when a rape or incest exception applied.

Jerde said that if the exceptions were unconstitutionally vague, the court could strike them down while leaving the rest of the law intact — resulting in an absolute ban on abortions with no exceptions. He said that was "not constitutionally impermissible," though "admittedly on the more extreme end."

He said it would be up to the legislature to clarify the exceptions, and that if it did not, "citizens of Wyoming would be free to approach the legislature and say, you've gone too far."

Owens said she would try to issue a ruling before her temporary order expires at noon on Wednesday.

Wyoming is one of about two dozen states that have moved to restrict abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which had established a nationwide right to abortion. New abortion restrictions have drawn a flurry of legal challenges, though most have been allowed to take effect.

The case is Johnson v. State of Wyoming, Teton County District Court, No. CV 18732.

For the plaintiffs: John Robinson and Marci Bramlet of Robinson Welch Bramlet

For the state: Jay Jerde of the Wyoming Attorney General's Office

Read more:

U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, ends constitutional right to abortion

U.S. abortion ruling ignites legal battles over state bans

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.