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The United States Supreme Court today declined to review a North Carolina law that would have forced a woman to undergo a narrated ultrasound before receiving an abortion — a measure that was blocked by both a district court and federal appeals court as unconstitutional.

“This dangerous and misguided law should never have passed in the first place. Politicians across the country should take note — these harmful and unconstitutional restrictions won’t be tolerated by the courts or the public,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “This misguided law would have inserted politics and bad medicine into every exam room in North Carolina. We are pleased that the courts are recognizing that these unconstitutional laws hurt women and block access to safe medical care.”

Courts Say Law Violates First Amendment, Interferes in Doctor-Patient Relationship

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found the law unconstitutional in December 2014, affirming that the law violates the First Amendment rights of physicians by forcing them to deliver politically motivated communications to a patient even over the patient’s objection.  The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel ruled that “transforming the physician into the mouthpiece of the state undermines the trust that is necessary for facilitating healthy doctor-patient relationships and, through them, successful treatment outcomes.”

How the case has moved through the courts:

  • The law was preliminarily blocked in October 2011 following a lawsuit filed on behalf of several North Carolina physicians and medical practices by the Center for Reproductive Rights, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the firm of O’Melveny & Myers. 
  • The measure was later permanently struck down as unconstitutional by a federal district court in January 2014. 
  • North Carolina asked the Supreme Court to review the measure in March 2015 after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found the law unconstitutional in December 2014.

With today’s news, the Supreme Court has left standing major victories in the lower courts that will keep politicians out of the exam room and the personal decisions of North Carolina women seeking to safely and legally end a pregnancy, said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.  “Women are fully capable of making thoughtful decisions about their families, future, and health without interference from politicians who presume to know better. And all doctors must be free to give patients their best medical judgment, free from talking points dictated by lawmakers advancing an agenda,” Northrup added.

A Law Designed to Shame and Demean Women Seeking Abortion

The North Carolina mandatory ultrasound law, passed in 2011 by the General Assembly over the veto of then-Governor Bev Perdue, is one of the most extreme ultrasound laws in the country. 

While the law would have allowed the woman to “avert her eyes” from the ultrasound screen and to “refuse to hear” the explanation of the images, the provider would still be required to place the images in front of her and describe them in detail over her objection. The North Carolina law would have applied even if a woman did not want to see the ultrasound, and makes no exception for rape, incest, serious health risks or severe fetal anomalies.

In 2015, state lawmakers have introduced 375 provisions aimed at restricting access to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. This is on top of 267 restrictions on abortion that have passed at the state level since 2011.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court decided not to review the decision striking down this law. Doctors shouldn’t be forced to humiliate a woman and disregard their best medical judgment in order to provide an abortion,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “The purpose of this law was crystal clear: to shame a woman who has decided to have an abortion out of getting one. In this country, it's not ok to turn doctors into the mouthpieces of politicians in order to make a woman feel bad about her decision.”

Tags: Abortion, Supreme Court, North Carolina

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