PHOENIX - A federal judge expressed unease Friday about potential harm to women that could result from allowing enforcement of a new Arizona law barring public funding for general health care services provided by abortion clinics and doctors.
U.S. District Judge Neil Wake held a hearing at the request of Planned Parenthood, a physician and several patients, who do not want the law to take effect at least until a trial is held on their lawsuit challenging the law enacted by the Republican-led Legislature last spring.
At issue in the case is whether Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers will continue to be paid for gynecological exams, cancer screenings and other non-abortion services provided to low-income patients. Arizona law already bars public funding for most abortions.
And while the state and the law's supporters want it to be allowed to take effect, the federal government has filed legal papers siding with the challengers, arguing that the Arizona law violates a federal Medicaid requirement that patients be allowed to choose among willing, qualified providers.
The federal government has taken identical positions on similar laws enacted by Indiana and Texas. Both of those states' laws were enacted in 2011 and also are the subjects of court fights.
The Arizona law's supporters say the state is entitled to set qualifications for providers to make sure there's no indirect subsidy for abortions through payments that help with overhead costs of Planned Parenthood and its clinics.
The judge asked a lawyer for the law's supporters about whether letting the ban take effect pending a trial would have harmful practical effects of not allowing women to choose their health care providers and denying care to some.
"It appears that we do have foreseeable practical impact on indigent women patients of Planned Parenthood of having to go somewhere else and no economic harm to the state but a frustration to the state of having its money go there," Wake said.
At another point in the hearing, he referred to potential "great harm" for patients.
Steve Aden, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney appointed as an Arizona special assistant attorney general to help defend the law in court, said the state can set its qualifications for providers broadly to reflect public policy to promote life births, not abortion.
If the law cannot be implemented, "the will of the taxpayers of Arizona and the Legislature has been denied," he said.
Alice Clapman, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood, earlier said allowing the law to take effect could mean patients would have to switch doctors in the middle of their pregnancy.
"These are harms that cannot be remedied after the fact," she said
Wake didn't rule immediately. One threshold issue he has to decide is whether Planned Parenthood and the other plaintiffs are legally entitled to sue, or whether only the federal government can challenge Arizona's law.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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