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N.C.’s 20-week abortion ban was struck down in court. But will the law change?

planned parenthood

There are nine Planned Parenthood clinics in North Carolina, including one in Chapel Hill. (Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

A federal judge ruled Monday that North Carolina’s long-standing abortion law is unconstitutional, which negates the law outlawing abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except in life-threatening situations. 

District Judge William Osteen said his ruling is consistent with rulings in other states like Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Arkansas and Mississippi.

With Osteen's ruling, lawmakers will have 60 days to either pass new legislation or challenge the decision.

North Carolina banned abortion outright over 100 years ago, but a 1973 state amendment legalized abortions up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. The amendment also provided an exception if there was substantial risk to the woman's life.

An additional amendment was enacted in 2016 that further defined a medical emergency that would necessitate an abortion after 20 weeks, saying a woman must face death or “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, not including any psychological or emotional conditions.”

Citing the amendment's narrow definition of an emergency, a lawsuit challenging the law was brought forward in 2016 by Amy Bryant, M.D., Beverly Gray, M.D., Elizabeth Deans, M.D. and Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.

Planned Parenthood claims that 20-week abortion bans are unconstitutional and dangerous. It argues that while 99 percent of abortions occur prior to the 21st week, the most complex and dangerous situations happen in the third trimester. This means that women need every medical option available, according to Planned Parenthood.

There is also scientific debate surrounding the viability of a fetus prior to 24 weeks, which is a timeline largely set by the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In his ruling, Osteen referred to another landmark abortion case, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey. 

“‘Even in the earliest stages of pregnancy, the state may enact rules and regulations designed to encourage (the mother) to choose to continue her pregnancy if those regulations do not impose an undue burden," Osteen stated. "However, a state may not ban abortions at any point prior to viability."

Viability can only be decided case-by-case with a medical professional, according to the Supreme Court ruling. 

N.C. Values Coalition Executive Director Tami Fitzgerald said she thinks the reasoning behind Olsteen’s decision was flawed, as viability can begin weeks earlier than previously thought.

“Today's federal court ruling confirms North Carolina lawmakers have the constitutional right to restrict abortion when the child in the womb is viable,” Fitzgerald said in a statement on Monday. “Our hospitals and physicians are finding viability at points once thought inconceivable just a decade ago.”

Jenny Black, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, affirmed her belief that an overarching law puts women at the mercy of lawmakers rather than allowing them to decide for themselves.

“All decisions about pregnancy, including abortion, are deeply personal and should be decided between a woman and her doctor, without medically unnecessary interference from politicians,” Black said in a press release. "This ruling affirms that right and sends a clear message to politicians that women deserve our care, not our judgment.”

ACLU of North Carolina Senior Staff Attorney Irena Como said the law was designed not only to complicate the process for women, but also to interfere with doctors ability to help their patients.

“North Carolina’s ban was written by politicians to intimidate doctors and interfere in a woman’s personal medical decisions. We’re glad the court blocked this harmful and restrictive measure while affirming that people have a constitutional right to make their own decisions about their pregnancy,” Como said in a press release. 

Fitzgerald said the N.C. Values Coalition will continue to fight for more restrictions on abortion. Some proposed legislation includes a ban on abortions after 13 weeks.

“I believe one day we all will be held accountable for the actions we take to protect the lives of the innocent,” Fitzgerald said.


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