By Ned Barnett
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday challenging a new North Carolina law that requires women to be shown an ultrasound image of the fetus before getting an abortion.
The "Woman's Right to Know Act" also imposes a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and requires abortion providers to describe the fetus to women and offer to let them hear the fetal heartbeat prior to the procedure.
The law is set to take effect on October 26.
Katy Parker, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said at a press conference in Raleigh on Thursday that the law violates free speech rights and intrudes on the relationship between a woman and her doctor.
"We're suing today to take the politicians out of the doctor's office," Parker said.
But Barbara Holt, president of North Carolina Right to Life and a supporter of the new law, said the ultrasound requirement will help women make fully informed decisions.
"The ultrasound is a window into the womb and the opportunity for this mother to get scientifically accurate information about a procedure that is going to have great consequences for her and for her child. It's a life or death decision," Holt said.
The state's Republican-led General Assembly passed the law this summer, overriding a veto by Democratic Governor Bev Perdue. North Carolina is the third state to approve a law requiring that a woman be shown an ultrasound before her abortion.
Courts in Texas and Oklahoma have "already blocked enforcement of these kinds of ultrasound requirements because they radically intrude on women's private lives and violate basic constitutional rights," said Bebe Anderson, a lawyer for the Center For Reproductive Rights.
Other plaintiffs in the suit filed in the Middle District of North Carolina include Planned Parenthood Health Systems, Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina and several doctors who provide abortions in the state.
The defendants include the president of the North Carolina Medical Board, the state Attorney General and district attorneys who might bring criminal charges against abortion providers who do not follow the law.
Melissa Reed of Planned Parenthood Health Systems said the law's requirements that a woman be presented with an image and read a description would create a "demeaning experience."
"Her only recourse is to avert her eyes and cover her ears," said Reed, the organization's vice president for public policy.
Holt said the required presentation is similar to what commercial air travelers are told before a flight about possible problems and safety procedures.
"You may have heard it a thousand times, but they are still required to say it and you need to know it," Holt said.
She said the fact that courts suspended the ultrasound requirement in Texas and Oklahoma doesn't mean the judges have agreed with those opposing the measures.
"In those other two states the final verdict is not in," Holt said. "Our opinion is that this is a good, solid, strong piece of law that will withstand constitutional scrutiny."
In 2008, 33,140 women obtained abortions in North Carolina, a rate of 17.5 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age, according to the latest figures available from the Guttmacher Institute, a group that studies and promotes reproductive rights.
A federal judge in Kansas refused on Thursday to block a new law in that state that restricts insurance coverage for abortions.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)