The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a North Carolina law which restricted abortion in a decision issued on Monday.
The highly controversial law required doctors to perform an ultrasound on women seeking an abortion, and forced providers to display the sonogram image as well as specifically describe the features of the fetus, even if the woman actively “averts her eyes” and “refuses to hear.”
A panel of three judges unanimously ruled that the law violated the First Amendment rights of abortion providers by compelling them to give advice to patients regardless of the doctor’s own opinions or medical expertise.
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who authored the opinion, noted that the women forced to hear this information and see the sonogram pictures were in a particularly vulnerable position, being half-dressed on an exam table and forced to submit to a procedure that they did not want. He noted that this procedure was not the same as requiring “informed consent,” because informed consent usually is given while fully clothed in a doctor’s office. This law required an invasive procedure, often done using an internal vaginal probe, regardless of the actual needs or wants of the patient.
While the state of North Carolina may promote its preference for childbirth in other ways,“it may not coerce doctors into voicing that message on behalf of the state in the particular manner and setting attempted here.”
Doctors were also required to ask the women if they wanted to hear the heartbeat of the fetus, though the woman was allowed to refuse. Doctors who violated the law were liable for damages in lawsuits and could lose their ability to practice medicine in North Carolina.
The judges ruled that the law not only compelled speech, but forced doctors to promote an ideology with which they may not agree. While the state of North Carolina may promote its preference for childbirth in other ways, Judge Wilkinson wrote that “it may not coerce doctors into voicing that message on behalf of the state in the particular manner and setting attempted here.”
In addition to interfering with free speech beyond what is reasonable for the regulation of the medical profession, the law would also simultaneously cause patients great psychological harm. As a result, the law violated the Constitution’s protections for free speech, and had to be struck down.
It remains to be seen if North Carolina will appeal this loss to the United States Supreme Court. Last year, the Supreme Court allowed an Oklahoma court’s decision to stand which ruled a similar law unconstitutional.