RICHMOND, Va. — A North Carolina law requiring abortion providers to show and describe an ultrasound to the pregnant woman is “ideological in intent” and violates doctors’ free-speech rights, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote that the law goes far beyond what most states have done to ensure that a woman gives informed consent to an abortion.
“While the state itself may promote through various means childbirth over abortion, it may not coerce doctors into voicing that message on behalf of the state in the particular manner and setting attempted here,” Wilkinson wrote.
Twenty-three states, mostly in the South and the Midwest, have laws dealing with the administration of ultrasounds by abortion providers, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports access to abortions. Four other states have enacted laws similar to North Carolina’s, although the U.S. Supreme Court last year let stand a lower court ruling invalidating Oklahoma’s statute.
The North Carolina law would have required abortion providers to display and describe the ultrasound even if the woman refused to look and listen — a mandate that the court found particularly troublesome.
“The most serious deviation from standard practice is requiring the physician to display an image and provide an explanation and medical description to a woman who has through ear and eye covering rendered herself temporarily deaf and blind,” Wilkinson wrote.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based appeals court upheld a ruling last January by U.S. District Judge Catharine Eagles.
Abortion rights supporters lauded the ruling.
“Exam rooms are no place for propaganda, and doctors should never be forced to serve as mouthpieces for politicians who wish to shame and demean women,” said Nancy Northrup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
North Carolina Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Republican and a primary sponsor of the 2011 law, said she strongly disagreed with the court’s finding.
“I still believe that women deserve to have all the information necessary to make an informed choice,” Samuelson said. “This is a life-changing decision for many women.”
Samuelson emphasized that other parts of the legislation, including a requirement for a website with information about alternatives to abortion, are still in effect.
North Carolina lawmakers overrode a gubernatorial veto to approve the law. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said he opposed the law but had a duty to defend it.
Virginia, South Carolina and West Virginia, which also are part of the 4th Circuit, have ultrasound laws that do not include the same speech requirement as the North Carolina statute and therefore do not appear to be affected by Monday’s ruling.
“Virginia’s law doesn’t contain the same sort of requirement that the physician deliver this ideological message,” said Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
AP Writer Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.