Judge halts North Carolina law requiring ultrasounds before abortions

The law is similar to one in Texas that also has been temporarily blocked. Opponents say the measures imperil the doctor-patient relationship.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted Nov. 14, 2011

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A North Carolina judge on Oct. 25 temporarily blocked a state law requiring physicians who provide abortions to show women ultrasounds of the fetuses and describe the images to the women at least four hours before the procedures take place.

Supporters of the law, which was set to take effect Oct. 26, said it ensures that women seeking abortions are fully informed, prevents coercive abortions and protects the life of unborn children. Opponents of the law argued that the rules violate the rights of health professionals and women seeking abortions. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America sued the state in September, challenging the law's constitutionality.

In her opinion, Catherine C. Eagles, a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, said the plaintiffs proved that their claims probably would be successful.

"Having demonstrated that the [law] likely poses a direct threat to their fundamental constitutional rights, the plaintiffs also have established that they would be irreparably harmed. Furthermore, it is in the public interest for statutes that likely violate fundamental constitutional rights to be enjoined from being enforced," she said.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion-rights group, praised the ruling, saying it protects medical decisions between patients and doctors.

"We are extremely pleased that the court has blocked this clear attack on the fundamental rights of health care providers providing abortions in North Carolina," said Bebe Anderson, senior counsel for the center. "The part of the law that the court blocked not only forces doctors to go against their medical judgment to deliver an ideological message to their patients, but also forces women to lie down and just take it. It's hard to imagine a more extreme example of government intrusion into the private matters of individual citizens."

At this article's deadline, the North Carolina attorney general's office had not returned messages seeking comment.

Familiar battle lines

The case is similar to an ongoing abortion law challenge in Texas.

In that case, a judge in August temporarily halted a law that required a woman seeking an abortion to hear the fetal heartbeat and receive a description of the fetus from a physician. An appeals court upheld the injunction. A full hearing before the appellate court is scheduled for January 2012.

In a statement, Republican state Rep. Sid Miller defended the law, saying the sonogram requirements are similar to other medical information provided by physicians. Miller co-wrote the bill that Gov. Rick Perry signed into law in May.

"Just as [a] doctor gives [a] medically relevant explanation of his or her patient's condition before even a minor procedure, an abortion provider should offer such information to women seeking abortions," Miller said. "I'm hopeful that all of the sonogram bill will be upheld so women can be fully informed."

Another legal challenge against state abortion restrictions continues in Kansas, where two doctors plan to sue again over regulations of abortion facilities. Obstetrician-gynecologists Herbert Hodes, MD, and Traci Nauser, MD, filed a federal lawsuit on June 28 to block a state law requiring tighter licensing requirements for physicians who perform abortions. The doctors said the law was an attempt to outlaw abortions in the state by making it too difficult for physicians to obtain licenses. State officials said the regulations were designed to ensure Kansans received the highest standard of care.

The suit led to revisions of the regulations, which rolled back certain requirements, such as specified room sizes in which the procedures could be performed. The revised rules are set to go into effect Nov. 14, and the new planned lawsuit will try to stop them.

The final regulations still impose unnecessary and unreasonable requirements that threaten women's health, said Maxine Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

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