U.S. justices refuse to restore North Carolina abortion ultrasound law

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2015 10:02 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a bid by the state of North Carolina to revive its law requiring women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound of the fetus performed and described to them by a doctor.

The high court let stand a December appeals court ruling that struck down the 2011 law as unconstitutional because it forced doctors to voice the state's message discouraging abortion. The action does not impact similar measures in other states.

North Carolina lawmakers had argued that requiring narrated ultrasounds would provide crucial information to women making an irrevocable decision, even if they chose to avert their eyes and not listen to the explanation of the displayed fetus images.

Under the law, passed by North Carolina's Republican-led legislature, physicians must perform an ultrasound, display the sonogram and describe the fetus to women seeking abortions.

The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the measure unduly burdened doctors' free speech rights under the Constitution's First Amendment.

That court concluded the state clearly intended to "convince women seeking abortions to change their minds or reassess their decisions."

"The state cannot commandeer the doctor-patient relationship to compel a physician to express its preference to the patient," the appeals court stated.

Abortion rights advocates welcomed the Supreme Court's action.

"Doctors shouldn't be forced to humiliate a woman and disregard their best medical judgment in order to provide an abortion," said Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project.

Advocates of abortion restrictions expressed disappointment.

"It makes no sense that federal courts would block a woman's access to life-saving information, which results in over 70 percent of women changing their minds about abortion after seeing their unborn child on an ultrasound screen," said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition.

The law came in a wave of state legislation passed in recent years by conservative lawmakers seeking to chip away at the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.

The push is moving into the courts. Another U.S. appeals court last week upheld key provisions of a Texas abortion law requiring clinics to have certain hospital-grade facilities. Critics say the regulatory hurdle was designed to shut down abortion providers.

The Supreme Court is also considering whether to hear a case concerning separate abortion restrictions in Mississippi.

North Carolina lawmakers have pushed forward with other restrictions, approving legislation this month requiring pregnant women to wait three days between consulting a doctor and having an abortion, among the nation's longest waiting periods.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)