Greensboro, N.C. — 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 its 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 offering the image to a woman seeking an abortion and other information they would promote childbirth and protect patients from emotional distress associated with the procedure and possible coercion. 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.
Eagles said other sections of the law, including a 24-hour waiting period, can be enforced.
Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed suit last month over the law, claiming that it infringed on the rights of both women and physicians.
“We are extremely pleased that the court has blocked this clear attack on the fundamental rights of health care providers providing abortions in North Carolina,” Bebe Anderson, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, another plaintiff in the suit, said in a statement.
“The part of the law that the court blocked not only forces doctors to go against their medical judgment to deliver an ideological message to their patients, but also forces women to lie down and just take it," Anderson said. "It’s hard to imagine a more extreme example of government intrusion into the private matters of individual citizens.”
Katy Parker, legal director for the ACLU, said the law was too vague about whether women could avert their eyes or refuse to hear and did not provide exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
"(The law) would have required the doctor to put the ultrasound in the woman's face and give information well beyond informed consent, regardless of whether the patient wanted to hear the information," Parker said. "The doctor had to keep talking even if it was clear that it was causing serious psychological consequences to the patient."
House Majority Leader Paul Stam, one of the leading proponents of the abortion restrictions, called Eagles' ruling a partial victory since the judge allowed most of the law to proceed.
"It is unfortunate that the abortion industry, embodied by the plaintiffs in this case, is so opposed to a woman meeting her child before deciding to terminate her pregnancy,” Stam, R-Wake, said in a statement.
Jackie Bonk, director of the Catholic Diocese's pro-life office, said that many women who get abortions have to deal with feelings of regret and remorse following the decision.
"The ultrasound does provide scientific information and it provides more information to know about the life that is within her," she said. "My concern is for the woman – going through the decision and having information."
She said women who have abortions often feel like they have no other choice and that they shouldn't be judged or condemned, but should be prepared for the decision they're making.
"So many times we've heard, 'I didn't know. I thought it was cells. I didn't know how developed it was.' No one wants to have an abortion. No woman ever does. It's a difficult situation to be in. It's a crisis," Bonk said. "Women deserve information to make an informed decision."
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, said late Tuesday its attorneys were reviewing the ruling.
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 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.