U.S. Appeals Court Hears Arguments Over Texas Ultrasound Law

January 6, 2011 — A three-judge panel from a federal appeals court heard arguments on Wednesday over a Texas law requiring doctors to perform an ultrasound and describe the fetus before an abortion, the AP/Houston Chronicle reports. The court accepted a request from Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell to hear an appeal of a district court decision granting a preliminary injunction blocking sections of the law (Kunzelman, AP/Houston Chronicle, 1/4).

In August 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks stopped three main provisions of the law from taking effect, including requiring doctors to make an ultrasound available for viewing by the woman; describing what the ultrasound shows, including the size of the fetus and any internal organs; and making available audio of the fetus' heartbeat, if detectable.

Sparks ruled that the provisions violate the First Amendment by requiring doctors to engage in government-mandated speech. He let stand a provision in the law requiring ultrasounds at least 24 hours before an abortion procedure, unless the woman lives at least 100 miles from the nearest provider. In that case, the wait time would be two hours (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/3/11).

At Wednesday's hearing, Mitchell argued, "Each of [Sparks'] decisions is wrong and should be vacated as an abuse of discretion."

Julie Rikelman -- an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the suit against the law -- argued that describing none of the requirements are medically necessary. She also noted that federal courts have issued preliminary injunctions against similar laws in Oklahoma and North Carolina, while several other states -- including Louisiana and Mississippi -- have enacted "less intrusive" ultrasound laws that make it optional for abortion providers to share the information with their patients.

When asked how the Texas law exceeds the state's authority to regulate the medical profession, Rikelman said the determination should be based on "what is medically necessary," adding, "The government shouldn't be able to interject itself in our conversations with physicians in that way."

According to the AP/Chronicle, Sparks is scheduled to convene a hearing on Jan. 20 to make a final decision on the underlying case without a trial. On Wednesday, Mitchell urged the three-judge panel to issue its ruling before Sparks does, but the judges did not say when they will rule (AP/Houston Chronicle, 1/4).