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Restrictive abortion law takes effect in North Carolina

October 26, 2011 | 12:27 pm

One of the nation's most restrictive abortion laws went into effect Wednesday in North Carolina after a federal judge temporarily halted the law's most controversial requirement — that a woman getting an abortion must first view a narrated ultrasound image of the fetus.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles ordered a preliminary injunction late Tuesday, ruling that the ultrasound requirement likely violates patients' First Amendment rights.

She upheld other sections of the law, including a 24-hour waiting period to provide information on abortion risks and alternatives.

The American Civil Liberties Union and four pro-choice groups contended in a lawsuit filed last month that requiring women to view ultrasound images and providing an opportunity to hear the fetal heartbeat promotes government-mandated ideology. Proponents of the law, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in July over the veto of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, say the requirement would promote childbirth and protect women from emotional trauma.

Judge Eagles ruled that state officials "have not articulated how the speech-and-display requirements address the stated concern in reducing compelled abortions, and none is immediately apparent." The First Amendment prohibits government directives on "both what to say and what not to say," she wrote.

She added: "The Supreme Court has historically taken a dim view of content-based speech compelled by the government."

The "A Woman’s Right to Know Act" requires the state to provide information to women seeking abortions, including any medical risks or "adverse psychological effects" of abortions. The state Department of Health and Human Services put the information online Wednesday.

The provision halted by the judge calls for abortion providers to show ultrasounds to a woman at least four hours before her abortion, with "a simultaneous explanation of what the display is depicting, which shall include the presence, location and dimensions of the unborn child within the uterus.”

Legal challenges have temporarily blocked similar laws in Texas and Oklahoma. North Carolina is the third state to require a provider to place ultrasound images in a woman’s line of sight and to describe them in detail.

Abortion providers in North Carolina already are required to perform ultrasounds prior to an abortion to determine the age of the fetus.

At least 20 states have passed laws that require ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. Eagles, who was nominated by President Obama last year, noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down statutes that require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and salute the flag, or compel people to display state mottoes on license plates.

She said the North Carolina abortion law "goes well beyond" requirements that patients give informed consent to medical procedures. The ultrasound provision could compel "an unwilling speaker to deliver visual and spoken messages to a listener who is not listening or looking," the judge wrote.

Eagles said the provision is "likely to harm the psychological health of the very group the state purports to protect."

The ultrasound injunction will remain in place at least until Dec. 5, when Eagles will hear more arguments in the case.

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— David Zucchino in Durham, N.C.

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