DURHAM, N.C. — A federal judge on Friday struck down a North Carolina law that requires abortion providers to show women seeking abortions an ultrasound and to describe the fetus.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles called the 2011 law overbroad and said it violates the 1st Amendment rights of medical professionals by imposing state-mandated speech requirements.
“It is an impermissible attempt to compel these providers to deliver the state’s message in favor of childbirth and against abortion,” Eagles wrote in a ruling issued in Greensboro, N.C.
The judge said the law imposes the state’s message on “women who take steps not to hear it and to women who will be harmed by receiving it with no legitimate purpose.”
Eagles had put the law on hold in October 2011 as a result of the lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and two other groups.
North Carolina’s Legislature passed the so-called Women’s Right to Know Act over the then-governor’s veto. It requires providers to place an ultrasound image next to a patient so that she can see the image, and let her hear the fetal heartbeat, even if she objects. It permits a woman to avert her eyes and to refuse to listen.
The law makes no exceptions for rape or incest, or in cases of serious medical complications.
Its primary sponsor, Republican state Rep. Ruth Samuelson, defended its intention and scope. “I think women are entitled to as much information as possible before they have an abortion or any medical procedure, so I find the judge’s decision disappointing,” she told the News & Observer.
But Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, hailed the judge’s decision. "Today’s court ruling protects the rights of women and their doctors from the ideological agenda of extremist lawmakers,” she said in a statement, calling the law “an egregious government intrusion into individuals’ private medical decisions.”
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund called the ruling “another major victor for women’s health."
N.C. Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A similar ultrasound law in Oklahoma was struck down by a federal judge, while an ultrasound law in Texas was upheld by a federal appeals court in 2012. Those conflicting decisions raised the possibility that the issue would end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nineteen other states require some form of exposure to ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which monitors abortion issues. Twelve states require women seeking abortions to receive verbal counseling or written materials that include information about ultrasounds, according to Guttmacher.