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Federal judge blocks two provisions in NC’s new abortion law


Federal judge blocks two provisions in NC’s new abortion law

Sep 30, 2023 | 2:36 pm ET
By Lynn Bonner
Federal judge blocks two provisions in NC’s new abortion law
L. Richardson Preyer Federal Courthouse in Greensboro (Photo: Lynn Bonner)

A federal judge blocked provisions of the state’s new abortion law dealing with abortion pills and procedures in clinics.

US District Court Judge Catherine Eagles, in an order issued Saturday, said that provisions preventing doctors from prescribing abortion pills in the early weeks of pregnancy and requiring abortions after 12 weeks be performed in hospitals rather than clinics cannot be enforced until all constitutional challenges are resolved. 

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Dr. Beverly Gray, a Duke OB/GYN, had sued to block the entire law, but Eagles allowed most of it to go into effect on July 1. The issues of abortion pill prescription limits and limits on abortions in clinics remained outstanding. 

“We will always fight for every inch of ground so that as many people as possible can get the health care they need in North Carolina,” Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic said in a statement Saturday.

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Gray sued state Attorney General Josh Stein and local district attorneys. Stein, a Democrat running for governor, does not support the new abortion law. 

On X, formerly Twitter, Stein said, “The law is not based in medical reality, and it was sloppily written. Women, not politicians, should he making these decisions.”

Republican legislators intervened, and their lawyers argued for the law in court. 

Under the Republican-authored abortion law, abortion pills could not be prescribed until about five or six weeks gestation, the point when an embryo is visible on an ultrasound. Lawyers representing Republican legislators said the restriction was a precaution against prescribing abortion pills in cases of ectopic pregnancy, when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus. 

Hannah Swanson, the lawyer representing Planned Parenthood, said at a hearing Monday the organization’s patient screening and blood tests find ectopic pregnancies sooner than when patients with very early pregnancies are just sent home and told to come back in a few weeks. 

Eagles wrote that the provision prohibiting abortion pill prescriptions in early pregnancies is unconstitutionally vague. 

“The Act does not provide a clear standard by which providers can make this determination, the provision is open to differing interpretations and does not provide reasonable notice of what is prohibited, and providers are subject to arbitrary accusations that they have violated the provision and to the penalties accompanying those accusations,” she wrote. 

Most abortions in North Carolina are banned after 12 weeks. Abortions are legal cases of rape or incest through 20 weeks, and are legal through 24 weeks in cases of “life-limiting” anomalies. 

The law requires that abortions after 12 weeks must be performed in hospitals rather than clinics. 

The same procedures for miscarriage management are used for abortions after 12 weeks. 

Swanson argued that it didn’t make sense to prohibit clinics from performing abortions after 12 weeks while allowing clinics to perform the same procedures for miscarriage management. 

“The plaintiffs have shown the absence of any rational medical basis for distinguishing between these two classes of patients, and the defendant-intervenors have not offered any evidence or rationale for that distinction,” Eagles wrote. 

Gray actively opposed new abortion restrictions before and after the legislature passed the law. 

“We applaud the court’s decision to block a few of the onerous barriers to essential reproductive health care that have no basis in medicine,” she said in a statement. 

“Despite today’s decision, North Carolina’s 12-week abortion ban has created unnecessary hurdles to obtain care, with providers across the state scrambling to support pregnant women who now face the nightmare of government-imposed forced pregnancy. We will continue to work in our communities to get people the care they need in every way we can under the cruel reality SB 20 has created. We hope for a day when the rights of our patients are restored.”