WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal appeals court has upheld the right of female inmates to be transported at state expense for elective abortions.
Pro-choice supporters hold a candlelight vigil outside the Supreme Court Building on January 22, 2005.
The ruling Tuesday from the St. Louis-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit came on the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
At issue was whether a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of female prisoners in Missouri could move ahead. The Supreme Court three years ago allowed a single inmate to have the procedure at a state-contracted facility off the penitentiary grounds. The state was ordered to provide transportation.
The Missouri Department of Corrections in 2005 amended its procedures to ban taking pregnant prisoners for off-campus elective, non-emergency abortions, known as "outcounts."
Officials cited cost savings, as well as security concerns for guards accompanying inmates to the St. Louis clinic, where anti-abortion protesters often gathered.
State attorneys had argued jailed offenders have always been denied certain rights enjoyed by law-abiding citizens, including "the right to procreate, vote and travel."
But a three-judge appeals panel found the policy violated the inmates' constitutional rights.
"Inmates tend to have higher pregnancy-risk factors than the general population, necessitating increased levels of prenatal care, which could increase the number of outcounts necessary during continued pregnancies," wrote the Judge William Riley, a 2001 Bush nominee.
Civil rights groups applauded the ruling.
"Courts throughout the country have consistently held that being in prison does not mean a woman gives up her reproductive rights," said Diana Kasdan, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "Like other serious medical needs, prison officials must ensure that a woman can access abortion care."
There was no immediate reaction from Missouri officials, and no indication whether they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. E-mail to a friend