A federal appeals court declared as unconstitutional on Monday a North Carolina law requiring abortion providers to show a woman an ultrasound and describe the images in detail before she can have an abortion.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling upheld a lower-court decision in January. The issue could now make its way to the Supreme Court.
The law was passed by the state's Republican-controlled legislature in 2011 over the objections of then-Gov. Bev Perdue (D). The Woman's Right to Know Act, which Perdue vetoed, requires a doctor to give a woman an ultrasound prior to the procedure and to describe the fetus in detail, regardless of the patient's wishes. The doctor also would be compelled to give the patient the choice as to whether she wants to listen to the fetal heartbeat. The law provided an exception only for medical emergencies, and providers who refused to comply with the bill would face losing their medical licenses.
On Monday, the court said that the narration provision was medically unnecessary and constituted a form of forced government speech.
"This compelled speech, even though it is a regulation of the medical profession, is ideological in intent and in kind," the federal judges wrote in their opinion. "The means used by North Carolina extend well beyond those states have customarily employed to effectuate their undeniable interests in ensuring informed consent and in protecting the sanctity of life in all its phases."
"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," the decision continues. "Abortion may well be a special case because of the undeniable gravity of all that is involved, but it cannot be so special a case that all other professional rights and medical norms go out the window."
Other provisions of the law, including a mandatory 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, will still go into effect.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenged the law along with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the American Civil Liberties Union, lauded the court's decision.
"We're thrilled that the appellate court rejected this unconscionable attempt to intrude on the doctor-patient relationship," Nancy Northup, the group's president and CEO, 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."
Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said the decision "sends a message to lawmakers across the country."
“Abortion in America today is safe and no doctor should be forced to deliver government mandated information that has nothing to do with promoting women’s health." Richards said in a statement. "Politicians are not medical experts — but politicians have written this law with the ultimate goal of restricting access to safe, legal abortion."
Twenty-three states regulate the provision of ultrasound prior to an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Those laws vary, however, in scope. Not all states require the abortion provider to show the patient the ultrasound image, and North Carolina was in the minority of those states that did so with its legislation.