In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has permanently blocked a 2011 law in North Carolina that represented one of the harshest forced ultrasound measures in the country. The judges agreed that the measure is a violation of the First Amendment.
The law, which was struck down by a district court at the beginning of this year, forced doctors to provide their patients with detailed descriptions of ultrasounds immediately before proceeding with an abortion. Even if the patient attempted to avoid that information by closing her eyes and covering her ears, the law stipulated that physicians should continue speaking.
Officials for the state argued the law was necessary because North Carolina has a legitimate interest in protecting the life of the unborn fetus that an abortion patient is carrying. This fall, during oral arguments, North Carolina Solicitor General John Maddrey claimed that the ultrasound law helps ensure that patients receive “relevant, truthful, real-time information” before their abortion procedure.
But judges have consistently ruled that North Carolina is going too far to turn doctors into political spokespeople by forcing them to deliver an ideologically driven anti-abortion message. In Monday’s opinion, the Fourth Circuit concluded that “the state cannot commandeer the doctor-patient relationship to compel a physician to express its preference to the patient.”
“We’re thrilled that the appellate court rejected this unconscionable attempt to intrude on the doctor-patient relationship,” Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, 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.”
Aside from preserving this aspect of the doctor-patient relationship, the recent ruling also prevents North Carolina women from being subject to a law that suggests they’re incapable of making their own decisions about a pregnancy.
“Informed consent” measures, which have become increasingly popular on the state level, are essentially designed under the assumption that abortion patients don’t understand what they’re getting into. Anti-choice activists typically assume that if women simply have a little bit more information — if they the chance to see an ultrasound or hear a fetus’ heartbeat — they’ll change their mind and decide to carry their pregnancy to term.
But women aren’t exactly ignorant to the reality of pregnancy, abortion, and parenting. Research has confirmed that nearly 90 percent of women are “highly confident” about their decision to have an abortion when they first visit a clinic. A large study published earlier this year found that looking an ultrasound doesn’t sway women’s decisions to go through with the abortion they had planned on. And perhaps most importantly, about 61 percent of the women who have abortions already have at least one child — so they definitely know what an ultrasound looks like.