A federal judge blocked part of North Carolina's new abortion law Tuesday, ruling providers do not have to place an ultrasound image next to a pregnant woman so she can view it, nor do they have to describe the features and offer her the chance to listen to the heartbeat.
The law was set to take effect Wednesday, but U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles' decision puts a key section of it on hold until she can hear more arguments.
North Carolina legislators and officials have argued that by showing the image to a woman seeking an abortion they would promote childbirth and protect patients from emotional distress associated with the procedure. The judge said she received no evidence supporting those arguments.
North Carolina officials "have not articulated how the speech-and-display requirements address the stated concern in reducing compelled abortions, and none is immediately apparent," the judge wrote in a preliminary injunction.
Attorneys for abortion providers and abortion-rights groups argued the ultrasound directives, carried out at least four hours before the scheduled procedure, actually would subject women to emotional pain and violate the medical ethics of doctors who feel the government is forcing them to carry out the Republican-controlled Legislature's ideology.
"If the ultrasound requirements were put into effect, this law would place doctors in a murky legal situation and inflict unnecessary harm on women," said Katy Parker, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation. "The state should not be using women's bodies as political pawns, as this law clearly seeks to do."
The judge allowed other parts of the law to be enforced, including a 24-hour waiting period to make information about abortion risks and alternatives available. The abortion providers didn't specifically challenge the waiting period.
"The bulk of the bill was upheld," said House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, a key proponent of the law.
Stam said the 24-hour waiting period would put North Carolina on par with more than 20 other states that have similar waiting times. Based on Mississippi's abortion law, Stam predicted that 10 percent of women who prepared to have an abortion will change their mind.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, said its attorneys were reviewing the ruling late Tuesday.
State medical rules already required abortion providers to perform ultrasounds before an abortion to determine the gestational age of the fetus.
The abortion bill became law in July when the Republican-led Legislature overturned a veto by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, who said the bill was extreme and encroached upon the doctor-patient relationship.
The judge planned another hearing in December.