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Supreme Court allows abortions for inmates

  • Story Highlights
  • Arizona county banned off-site elective medical procedures for prisoners
  • State appeals court called regulations an "undue burden" on inmate's rights
  • Prisoner agreed to pay abortion costs herself
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From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court's ruling that female inmates have a constitutional right to abortions off jail grounds.

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The Supreme Court, without comment, let stand a lower court ruling on inmate abortions.

The case involved an Arizona woman who wanted a first-trimester abortion, but was refused transportation by corrections officials in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. The county appealed a lower-court decision in favor of the woman.

The county's policy banned off-site "elective medical procedures" without a court order. County officials said they provided transportation only for procedures they deemed "medically necessary." A state court ruled that was an "exaggerated response" to the inmate's request.

The Supreme Court justices without comment refused to decide if the county's policy violated a woman's due process rights.

The decision means changes ordered by a state court in 2005 giving women easier access to abortions off jail grounds must continue. A similar case in Missouri is expected to reach the Supreme Court in coming months.

The inmate in the Arizona case, listed in court papers under the pseudonym "Jane Doe," found out she was pregnant just after she had been sentenced in 2004 to four months in the county jail for driving while intoxicated.

Doe, then 19, immediately requested an abortion, but corrections officers said they would drive her to a nearby clinic only if she had a court order.

It took seven weeks to obtain the order, and her lawyers complained Doe faced "repeated obstacles."

After undergoing the abortion, Doe -- supported by the ACLU -- filed a lawsuit forcing the state to provide transportation for abortions.

State courts eventually found the county's policy placed an "undue burden" on pregnant inmates seeking abortions. The Supreme Court established that legal standard more than a quarter-century ago when when states were considering limiting women's access to abortion.

A state appeals court noted certain prisoner rights could be curtailed in the name of safety and efficiency inside a corrections facility. But the judges said that in this case, prison resources would not have been affected, since Doe had agreed to pay for the transportation and medical costs herself.

And taking prisoners off-campus is a routine procedure, the state court said.

"The county regularly transports inmates for court appearances, compassionate visits and non-emergency, medically necessary treatment," the court said. "Transportation for abortion services are a negligible fraction of the overall transportation the county performs each year."

The ACLU applauded the high court's action. "Today's announcement puts an end to Maricopa County prison officials' blatant disregard of the law and failure to ensure that prisoners get the health care they need," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, the group's Arizona executive director. "It's the end of the road for Sheriff Arpaio's campaign against reproductive freedom."

Joseph Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff, is in charge of the county jail system.

The Supreme Court three years ago allowed a single inmate in Missouri to have the procedure at a state-contracted facility off penitentiary grounds. The state was ordered to provide transportation.

After that case, a federal appeals court in St. Louis in January upheld the overall right of female inmates to be transported at state expense for elective abortions.

The Missouri appeal has not yet reached the high court, but is expected to be filed by the summer.

The case announced Monday is Arpaio v. Doe (07-839). E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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