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Appeals Court: N.C. Coercive Ultrasound Law Unconstitutional

December 23, 2014 — A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday unanimously upheld a lower court's ruling that struck down part of a 2011 North Carolina Law (HB 854) requiring doctors to perform ultrasounds on women seeking abortions and describe the images to them, even if they avert their eyes or cover their ears, Reuters reports (Jenkins, Reuters, 12/22).

According to bill sponsor state Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R), other provisions of the legislation, including the creation of a website listing information about abortion alternatives, remain in effect (O'Dell, AP/Miami Herald, 12/22).

Background

The requirement that providers display and describe the ultrasound image never took effect after being challenged by a coalition of several groups, including the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood Federation of America (Zucchino, Los Angeles Times, 12/22).

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles struck down the provision earlier this year, saying that it violates physicians' free-speech rights because the state does not have "the power to compel a health care provider to speak, in his or her own voice, the state's ideological message in favor of carrying a pregnancy to term."

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) appealed the decision to the 4th Circuit. Cooper said at the time that while he personally "oppose[s] laws like this that force the state into women's medical decisions, the state will appeal this ruling because legitimate constitutional questions remain that should be decided by a higher court" (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/30).

Latest Ruling

Judge Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the 4th Circuit panel that the provision is an unconstitutional violation of physicians' free-speech rights.

Wilkinson wrote, "The state cannot commandeer the doctor-patient relationship to compel a physician to express its preference to the patient" and that "this compelled speech provision" violates the First Amendment (Reuters, 12/22).

He continued, "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" (Los Angeles Times, 12/22).

Wilkinson added that the provision "forces physicians to say things they otherwise would not say. Moreover, the statement compelled here is ideological; it conveys a particular opinion. The state freely admits that the purpose ... is to convince women seeking abortions to change their minds or reassess their decisions."

Reaction

The North Carolina Office of the Attorney General on Monday said that it would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, noting that other courts had upheld a similar requirement in Texas. Courts also struck down such a measure in Oklahoma (Somashekhar, "Post Nation," Washington Post, 12/22).

Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards said in a statement, "Today's ruling marks another major victory for women and sends a message to lawmakers across the country: [i]t is unconstitutional for politicians to interfere in a woman's personal medical decisions about abortion" (Reuters, 12/22).

CRR President and CEO Nancy Northup said in a statement, "Exam rooms are no place for propaganda and doctors should never be forced to serve as mouthpieces for politicians who wish to shame and demean women" (Los Angeles Times, 12/22).