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Court Allows Implementation of Most Provisions in North Carolina’s Revised 12-Week Abortion Law

by Chloe Baker
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abortion law

A federal judge has ruled that the majority of North Carolina’s revised 12-week abortion law can take effect as scheduled, starting this weekend. However, one specific rule that doctors were concerned about, which could have exposed them to criminal penalties, has been temporarily blocked.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles’ decision sets aside the aforementioned rule but permits the remaining provisions of the law to be implemented on Saturday while the litigation continues.

Abortion providers had requested a comprehensive order last week, seeking to halt all restrictions set for July 1 until their court challenge is resolved. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and a physician argued that several sections of the newly revised law were ambiguous and appeared contradictory, making it possible for doctors to unintentionally violate the law and leaving them unable to provide care to women seeking legal abortions.

In response, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed legislation this week, revising or repealing most of the contested provisions. Consequently, the arguments against these provisions became irrelevant. The lawmakers clarified that medication abortions would be legal in nearly all cases up to 12 weeks and that a lawful abortion remains an exception to North Carolina’s fetal homicide statute.

Judge Eagles, nominated by former President Barack Obama, stated in court that blocking the enforcement of the entire law would be overly broad. Instead, she directed that, for at least the next two weeks, the state is prohibited from enforcing a rule that mandates doctors to document the existence of a pregnancy within the uterus before conducting a medication abortion.

Lawyers representing the abortion providers argued that the language raised concerns about whether abortion pills could be dispensed when it’s too early in a pregnancy to detect an embryo using an ultrasound. This could potentially subject a provider to violating the law.

Judge Eagles wrote, “If the pregnancy is in the early stages and the physician cannot document the existence of an intrauterine pregnancy, then the physician cannot comply with this requirement.” She also mentioned that she will reconsider this rule and address other challenges in upcoming hearings.

Peter Im, an attorney from Planned Parenthood, stated that the plaintiffs had already achieved much of what they sought through the legislature’s revisions. With Judge Eagles’ order, “it is clear that we can provide care to patients at the very earliest stages of pregnancy,” Im added.

Lauren Horsch, spokesperson for Senate leader Phil Berger, noted that “the General Assembly provided the clarity physicians asked for.”

Prior to Saturday, North Carolina had imposed a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks. The new rules, established after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022, reduce the limit to 12 weeks. However, exceptions have been added through 20 weeks for cases of rape and incest, and through 24 weeks for “life-limiting” fetal anomalies. A medical emergency exception remains in place.

Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the abortion law in May, but Republicans used their veto-proof majorities in both chambers to override him. On Thursday, Cooper signed a clean-up bill that had overwhelming bipartisan support. Despite being a strong supporter of abortion rights, Cooper stated that it was necessary to clarify the rules due to the original measure being “so poorly written that it is causing real uncertainty for doctors and other healthcare providers.”

GOP legislators supporting the new restrictions referred to them as a compromise in a state where some anti-abortion advocates wanted a ban as soon as cardiac activity could be detected through ultrasound, typically around six weeks. They also highlighted the $160 million allocated in the law for services benefiting children, mothers, and families, which is not part of the ongoing litigation.

Caitlin Connors, a representative of the anti-abortion group SBA Pro-Life America, described Friday’s ruling as “a crucial win for the unborn and their mothers.”

Critics argue that the 12-week standard, along with the new restrictions on providers, abortion clinics, and patients, will make it more challenging for low-income women and those in rural areas to access legal abortions. They particularly point to the requirement that individuals seeking an abortion must visit a provider’s office in person before the state’s existing 72-hour waiting period, which has been in place for years, can begin. Previously, this initial contact could be made over the phone.

Dr. Katherine Farris, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, stated on Friday that the new restrictions will “undoubtedly harm patients. Our patients are devastated, and the doctors who care for them are devastated.” She added that this week, the group had to start arranging for patients to seek care out of state, knowing that they would be ineligible for services starting Saturday.

The new abortion law also stipulates that starting October 1, surgical abortions, performed after 12 weeks of pregnancy, must be conducted in hospitals. This requirement is still being challenged in the lawsuit. Additionally, new licensing for abortion clinics is set to commence in October.

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