Attorneys for the State of North Carolina have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a state law that requires patients to undergo a narrated ultrasound before having an abortion, even if the patient objects.
The North Carolina General Assembly passed the ultrasound law in 2011 over the veto of then-Gov. Beverly Perdue. The legislation, considered by reproductive health advocates to be one of the most extreme ultrasound laws in the country, requires that abortion providers perform an ultrasound and place the image in the patient’s line of sight.
The provider must then describe the embryo or fetus in detail and offer the patient the opportunity to hear the “fetal heart tone,” even over the objections of the patient. The law contains a narrow exception that allows a patient to avert their eyes and “refuse to hear” the description, but the provider is still required to place the images in front of the patient and describe them in detail, even if a patient tries to avoid them.
The law forces this procedure on all patients, even those terminating pregnancies due to rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly, or the health of the patient.
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The Center for Reproductive Rights, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, successfully challenged the law on behalf of North Carolina physicians and their patients, arguing it violates the First Amendment rights of physicians by forcing them to deliver politically motivated anti-choice messages to patients even over the patients’ objection.
Advocates also argued that the law harms women by subjecting them to paternalistic “protections” and disrespects them as decision-makers rather than serving any medical purpose.
A federal court in October 2011 preliminarily blocked the law from taking effect while a trial challenging its constitutionality proceeded. In December 2014, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed an earlier decision permanently blocking the ultrasound law from taking effect.
Monday’s filing with the Roberts Court appeals that ruling, arguing that the Fourth Circuit’s decision conflicts with other federal court of appeals decisions upholding mandatory ultrasound laws in South Dakota and Texas.
“The only purpose for this intrusive and unconstitutional law is to shame and demean women who have made the very personal, private decision to end a pregnancy,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “We will continue to take all steps necessary to protect the First Amendment and ensure doctors are never forced to serve as mouthpieces for politicians.”
In permanently blocking the law as unconstitutional, the trial court determined that the law is an “impermissible attempt to compel these providers to deliver the state’s messages in favor of childbirth and against abortion,” which has the effect of ”transforming the physician into the mouthpiece of the state.”
The result, the court concluded, “undermines the trust that is necessary for facilitating healthy doctor-patient relationships and, through them, successful treatment outcomes.”
“As the court has recognized, a doctor shouldn’t be forced to humiliate a patient just because some politicians disagree with her decision,” Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement.
So far the Roberts Court has declined to step into the fight over mandatory ultrasound laws, refusing in November 2013 to review a similar law from Oklahoma. That decision by the Court left in place a ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court permanently blocking the measure as unconstitutional.
“We are hopeful that the Court will reaffirm that it is unconstitutional for government to interfere in personal medical decisions about abortion that should be left to a woman and her doctor,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “Politicians are not medical experts, yet politicians have written this law as part of a broader effort to end access to safe, legal abortion.”