By Jason McLure
ST LOUIS (Reuters) - Attorneys for North Dakota and Arkansas urged a U.S. appeals court panel on Tuesday to overturn federal judge decisions that block state laws that would shorten the period allowed for a woman to end a pregnancy.
Federal judges in April struck down a North Dakota law that would ban most abortions after a fetal heartbeat could be detected, as soon as six to seven weeks after conception, and an Arkansas law banning most abortions at 12 weeks.
Daniel Gaustad, an attorney who represents North Dakota, argued Tuesday that the state's law, the most restrictive in the nation, did not violate U.S. Supreme Court rulings that permit abortion before a fetus is viable. Current law determines that period to be about 24 weeks.
"It's a standard that's been applied for centuries to determine the life of a human being," Gaustad told a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments on both cases.
North Dakota is seeking a bench trial at which it could present medical evidence that a fetus can survive for several days with medical assistance even in the first trimester. In previous filings, a doctor for the state argued that viability begins at conception since an embryo can be kept alive in a lab and reinserted into the womb.
North Dakota's only abortion clinic, the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, argued that the law was unconstitutional and a major break with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
"What they're really simply expressing is they really don't like prior decisions and they'd like the Supreme Court to reconsider them," Janet Crepps, a lawyer from the Center for Reproductive Rights who represents the clinic.
In the Arkansas case, Colin Jorgensen, an assistant attorney general for the state, argued that since 80 percent of women obtain abortions during the first trimester, the new law was not an unconstitutional ban, but a protection for women.
"All else being equal, it's undisputed it's better for a woman to have an abortion earlier than later," Jorgensen said. "The state would prefer there be no abortions, but we're not allowed to do that at this time."
The American Civil Liberties Union represented doctors who challenged the Arkansas law, which included potential license revocation for doctors who perform abortions beyond 12 weeks into pregnancy.
The court did not say when it would rule on the cases.
(Reporting by Jason McLure; Editing by David Bailey and Richard Chang)