Judges find constitutional flaws in NC abortion law

The law compelling doctors to describe ultrasound images to patients unconstitutionally infringed upon their free speech rights.

Photo by Phil Roeder (Flickr)

This article is the second in a three-part series discussing the recent court rulings on abortion laws.  You can read Part One here.

In her ruling on North Carolina’s most recent abortion law, Judge Catherine Eagles of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina wrote, “[t]he United States Supreme Court has never held that a state has the power to compel a health care provider to speak, in his or her own voice, the state’s ideological message in favor of carrying a pregnancy to term, and this court declines to do so today.”  Judge Eagles held unconstitutional a North Carolina law that forced women seeking an abortion to receive an ultrasound, while simultaneously having the image described to them in detail.  The decision held that the “forced ultrasound” provision of the law is a violation of constitutional free speech rights.

The law had required that even if a woman did not want to hear or see what the doctor described, the fetus would still be described in detail, and the image of the ultrasound would be placed in the woman’s line of sight.  Moreover, abortion providers were required to show the image and describe the fetus in detail even if the woman actively averted her eyes and closed her ears so she was unable to hear.  This requirement placed doctors in the very awkward and untenable position of having to decide between their legal duties and their personal and professional duties to their clients.

Since 2011, North Carolina has passed legislation to prohibit state funding of abortions and abortion-covering health plans except in cases where there is strong public policy, such as rape, incest, or endangerment to the life of the mother.  The number of abortions performed on North Carolina residents at facilities in North Carolina decreased by 5.5 percent from 2012 to 2013.  However, the downward trend began in 2006, five years before the passage of the newest set of laws.

Proponents of the law contended that it would promote childbirth, while opponents viewed it as an impermissible restriction on a woman’s right to choose.  Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) of North Carolina said, “[t]oday’s court ruling protects the rights of women and their doctors from the ideological agenda of extremist lawmakers.”  The ACLU and other groups that brought the lawsuit praised Judge Eagles’s decision.

When the case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Judge Harvie Wilkinson wrote, “[t]his compelled speech, even though it is a regulation of the medical profession, is ideological in intent and kind.”  He further went on to say, “[a]bortion may well be a special case because of the undeniable gravity of all that is involved, but it cannot be so special a case that all other professional rights and medical norms go out the window.”

North Carolina’s law was one of the strictest in the country, but this ruling has undeniably softened the stringent law.  However, many other crucial pieces of the law are still in place.

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About Kruti Patel, Senior Staff Writer (14 Articles)
Kruti Patel is a 2016 graduate, and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is a Greensboro, North Carolina native. In 2013, Kruti graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Spanish for the Professions. During the summer of 2014, Kruti worked as a research assistant for Professor Patrick Hetrick researching joint tenancy laws, and at the NC Department of Health and Human Services in the Communications Department. Kruti is worked as Prof. Hetrick’s research assistant and at the NC Hospital Association during her second year of law school.
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