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A federal appeals court struck down one of the nation's toughest abortion restrictions on Wednesday, ruling that women would be unconstitutionally burdened by an Arkansas law that bans abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat.
 
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with doctors who challenged the law, ruling that abortion restrictions must be based on a fetus' ability to live outside the womb, not the presence of a fetal heartbeat that can be detected weeks earlier. The court said that standard was established by previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The ruling upholds a decision of a federal judge in Arkansas who struck down the 2013 law before it could take effect, shortly after legislators approved the change. But the federal judge left in place other parts of the law that required doctors to tell women if a fetal heartbeat was present; the appeals court also kept those elements in place.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office was reviewing the decision "and will evaluate how to proceed," office spokesman Judd Deere said Wednesday afternoon.

The ruling wasn't a surprise to Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represented the two doctors challenging the law. She said the case was a waste of taxpayer time, and that the decision leaves medical decisions to doctors and their patients, rather than politicians.

"We were kind of surprised it took as long as it did, frankly," Sklar said. "From our point of view it was a pretty simple case."

The law was among several abortion restrictions Republicans pushed through the Arkansas Legislature shortly after they took control of both the Senate and House for first time since Reconstruction.

A similar law restricting abortions to 20 weeks' gestation is still in effect in Arkansas, as are similar bans in 11 other states, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.

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