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Appeals court halts enforcement of Arizona abortion drug curbs

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court sided with abortion rights advocates on Tuesday in temporarily blocking Arizona from enforcing regulations that restrict access to abortion-inducing drugs by prohibiting off-label uses.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction stopping enforcement of the statute while opponents, including Planned Parenthood, sought to overturn it in court.

The FDA has approved RU-486, the so-called "abortion pill," for use within seven weeks' gestation. Doctors who have prescribed it later than that have made an off-label use that is not allowed under the Arizona rules.

At issue in this case is a physician's discretion to go "off-label" and use the drug as the doctor believes best in the circumstances.

Planned Parenthood and the Tucson Women's Center sued to overturn the rules and sought a temporary restraining order to stop them from going into effect while the lawsuit was being litigated.

They argued that the regulations could force women to travel to other states or prevent them from getting the procedure altogether.

"This means that women in Arizona will continue to have access to a safe, legal method of abortion for now. We hope the court will ultimately rule to protect the health and safety of women," Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Cecile Richards said after the 9th Circuit's ruling.

"If implemented, these misguided restrictions would force doctors to provide inferior, outdated, and less effective care to their patients - rather than providing care based on their expertise and 13 years of research in the medical field," Richards said.

The stay by the 9th Circuit comes after a federal judge in Arizona had refused earlier this week to block implementation of the rules.

A spokeswoman for the anti-abortion Center for Arizona Policy earlier has called that judge's decision denying a stay a "victory for women." Representatives for the center could not be reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon.

The rules were part of a package of items included in legislation signed into law by Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer in 2012, in what has been a continuing effort to seek ways to limit abortions in the southwestern state.

A provision at the heart of the law, banning abortions from 20 weeks gestation except in medical emergencies, was struck down last year by a federal court, but the drug provision remains intact.

In Arizona, the latest figures show that 32 percent of the 13,340 abortions performed in 2012 were non-surgical - all but a small percentage using RU-486, or mifepristone.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)

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