Federal court strikes down NC's ban on abortions after 20 weeks

Posted March 26, 2019 11:54 a.m. EDT
Updated March 26, 2019 10:23 p.m. EDT

— A federal judge has struck down North Carolina's long-standing ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, ruling Monday that such an arbitrary timeline could deprive a woman of her constitutional right to end a pregnancy before her fetus could viably live on its own outside the womb.

U.S. District Judge William Osteen Jr. immediately stayed his ruling for 60 days to give state lawmakers a chance to appeal his ruling or pass new legislation regarding abortions.

"The Supreme Court has recognized that, while viability is the point at which the state’s legitimate interest rises to a level that may support an outright ban (with appropriate health exceptions), viability does not occur at a fixed number of weeks after the pregnancy begins but rather is determined individually in each case by a doctor," Osteen wrote in his 48-page ruling.

"[N]o matter what the state’s legitimate interest in restricting abortion, this interest can never support an outright ban prior to viability," he ruled. " While not titled as such, [North Carolina's law] is a ban and not a regulation. In conjunction with [other state statutes], North Carolina law criminalizes all non-emergency abortions performed after twenty weeks, without regard to the type of procedure or how the abortion is obtained."

Spokesmen for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said legislative leaders were reviewing the ruling.

The North Carolina Values Coalition plans to lobby lawmakers for new legislation limiting abortion.

"Today's federal court ruling confirms North Carolina lawmakers have the constitutional right to restrict abortion when the child in the womb is viable. Our hospitals and physicians are finding viability at points once thought inconceivable just a decade ago," Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the Values Coalition, said in a statement. "NC Values Coalition is committed to working with our state's pro-life lawmakers and advocates until abortion is an unthinkable act."

State law does allow abortions after 20 weeks in case of medical emergency, but a law passed in 2015 narrowly defined such emergencies to issues requiring immediate intervention. Any doctor performing a late-term abortion due to a medical emergency is now required to report it to the state Department of Health and Human Services, along with a detailed explanation of the emergency.

The 2015 law also requires doctors who perform abortions more than 16 weeks after conception to submit ultrasounds taken before the procedure to DHHS for review, regardless of whether the woman consents. Women also must now wait 72 hours to obtain an abortion, up from 24 hours previously.

Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for reproductive Rights challenged the 2015 law and cheered Osteen's ruling Tuesday.

"All decisions about pregnancy, including abortion, are deeply personal and should be decided between a woman and her doctor, without medically unnecessary interference from politicians," Jenny Black, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said in a statement. "This ruling affirms that right and send a clear message to politicians that women deserve our care, not our judgment."

"Important medical decisions throughout different points of a woman’s pregnancy, including whether to have an abortion, must be left to the woman and her doctor – not politicians," Irena Como, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement. "North Carolina’s ban was written by politicians to intimidate doctors and interfere in a woman’s personal medical decisions. We’re glad the court blocked this harmful and restrictive measure while affirming that people have a constitutional right to make their own decisions about their pregnancy."