The Supreme Court today rejected an appeal from North Carolina seeking to revive a controversial law that would have required doctors to perform a narrated ultrasound on a woman before she could have an abortion. The court’s refusal to hear the case thus leaves intact a decision from the lower federal appeals court, finding that the 2011 North Carolina law was “ideological in intent” and violated doctors’ free-speech rights.
The North Carolina law, versions of which have been passed in 23 other states, forced women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the image before being allowed to exercise their constitutional right to abortion. Under the law, doctors and technicians were required to place the ultrasound image in front of a woman’s face, and describe the fetus to her using very specific language prescribed by the state. For instance, they must tell their patients about the fact that “the father is liable to assist in the support of the child” and “the woman has other alternatives to abortion, including keeping the baby or placing the baby for adoption,” as well as information about the “anatomical and physiological characteristics” of the fetus.
Even if the patient attempted to avoid that information by closing her eyes and covering her ears, North Carolina’s law made doctors legally obligated to continue speaking. The law applied even to women who were victims of rape and incest, or who discovered severe fetal anomalies.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and other groups challenged the law, which was enjoined by a lower federal court and then struck down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last winter for violating the First Amendment rights of physicians. “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 three-judge panel wrote in its decision.
Federal appeals courts have upheld similar laws from Texas and South Dakota, creating a split in the courts that sometimes leads the high court to weigh in. But not today. In a one-sentence order, as is the custom, the court rejected North Carolina’s request to revive the draconian law, rendering it permanently invalid. The refusal to hear the appeal, however, does not impact the status of similar laws in other states.
Currently, 13 states require mandatory ultrasounds for abortion patients, and another 27 states have enacted so-called “informed consent” laws, which require abortion providers to give women specific information — above and beyond what is already required in all 50 states under existing medical and legal mandates — prior to having an abortion. A Guttmacher Institute review of these policies found that, in most states, the information providers are mandated to relay to patients is both politically motivated and medically inaccurate. Rather than informing women’s decisions, most state-mandated “informed consent” policies are designed to influence women’s decisions, says the Guttmacher Institute’s Rachel Benson Gold. “Providing women information specifically geared to dissuading them from having an abortion is a perversion of medical ethics in general and the informed consent process in particular.”
And despite what proponents of these anti-choice laws claim, research shows that the vast majority of women who seek out abortion services have already made up their mind, and viewing an ultrasound doesn’t sway them, nor does mandatory pre-abortion counseling. Earlier studies have also confirmed that nearly 90 percent of women are “highly confident” about their decision to end a pregnancy, and state-imposed barriers don’t change that.
“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. She praised the court’s decision today to block the intrusive ultrasound mandate, adding:“The purpose of this law was crystal clear: to shame a woman who has decided to have an abortion out of getting one.”
The now-defunct North Carolina law is one of hundreds of recent abortion restrictions that have been introduced by Republican state legislatures with the goal of ending access to safe, legal abortion. In the past four years, GOP state lawmakers enacted more than 267 abortion restrictions, and in the first quarter of 2015 alone, more than 330 abortion restrictions were introduced — an average of more than four a day.
Yet at the same time, new polling shows that most Americans identify as pro-choice and that seven in 10 Americans want a woman who has decided to have an abortion to be able to get it without additional burdens.