RALEIGH, N.C. — Abortions in North Carolina are no longer legal after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, eroding protections in one of the South’s few remaining safe havens for reproductive freedom.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen reinstated an unenforced 20-week abortion ban, with exceptions for urgent medical emergencies. The decision came after he said the June U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade erased the legal foundation for his 2019 ruling that placed an injunction on the 1973 state law.
The 20-week abortion ban was initially signed into law in 1973, months after the Roe v. Wade ruling. The law was then challenged in 2016 shortly after lawmakers narrowed abortions after the 20th week of gestation so that they were only allowable if the mother faces a risk of death or serious and irreversible harm from some urgent medical emergency. Then in 2019, the law was declared unconstitutional by Osteen.
Osteen’s Wednesday decision defies the recommendations of all named parties in the 2019 case, including doctors, district attorneys and the attorney general’s office, who earlier this week filed briefs requesting he let the injunction stand.
“Neither this court, nor the public, nor counsel, nor providers have the right to ignore the rule of law as determined by the Supreme Court,” wrote Osteen, who was appointed to the court by Republican President George W. Bush.
Unable to pass abortion restrictions that would survive Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, the Republican General Assembly leaders urged Osteen to restore the ban in a July 27 friend-of-the-court brief after the state’s Democratic attorney general, an outspoken abortion rights supporter, rejected their demand that he bring the ban before a judge himself.
Osteen’s ruling adds fuel to an already contentious midterm election year after the Supreme Court ruling propelled state-level politics into the spotlight. North Carolina Republicans in November will aim to clinch the five additional seats they need for a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature as Democrats stave off their challenges to preserve Cooper’s power.
(Watch the video below: Local experts discuss North Carolina’s 20-week-abortion ban)
Republican lawmakers say a successful election season could open the door to further abortion restrictions when the General Assembly reconvenes early next year. House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters on July 26 that he would like to see the legislature consider banning abortions once an ultrasound first detects fetal cardiac activity — typically around six weeks after fertilization and before some patients know they’re pregnant.
Cooper and other Democrats have already elevated abortion access as a key campaign issue. The governor signed an executive order on July 6 shielding out-of-state abortion patients from extradition and prohibiting state agencies under his control from aiding other states’ prosecutions of those who travel for the procedure.
Before Osteen’s ruling, abortions were legal in North Carolina until fetal viability, which generally falls between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy, or in certain medical emergencies.
As other Southeastern states continue to chip away at abortion access, Alison Kiser, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic, said limiting treatment in “a critical access point state” like North Carolina will have ripple effects across the region.
The number of out-of-state patients at North Carolina’s Planned Parenthood health centers has tripled since the Supreme Court ruling, Kiser said. So far in August, 36% of abortion patients traveled from other states, up from 14% in June.
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But Republicans argue little will change with the 20-week ban back in place. In 2019, fewer than 1% of abortions nationwide were performed after 20 weeks of gestation, consistent with data from previous years when abortion access was protected at the federal level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Abortions after 20 weeks are rare, but it’s still incredibly important that people have access to this care,” Kiser said. “The two primary reasons people need abortion care later in pregnancy is because they’ve received new medical information or, and ever more so now, they’re facing barriers that have delayed their care.”
The main delay, she said, is North Carolina’s 72-hour mandatory waiting period to receive an abortion after an initial doctor’s visit. The General Assembly extended the waiting period in 2015, making North Carolina the fifth state to require counseling three days before an abortion — one of the longest waiting periods in the country.
The 2015 bill also amended the state law that Osteen reinstated Wednesday, narrowing the criteria for medical emergencies that could warrant an abortion after 20 weeks.
Full statement from Cooper on the ruling:
“Although I disagree with this ruling, the vast majority of patients will still be able to access reproductive health care in North Carolina, and I remain committed to protecting it.
“The significant problem with this ruling is that it will criminalize important health care that’s needed in certain extraordinary circumstances. Abortion past 20 weeks in pregnancy is exceptionally rare and happens because of a devastating health emergency or diagnosis. Denying women necessary medical care in extreme and threatening situations, even if rare, is fundamentally wrong, and we cannot let politicians mislead people about the real world implications of this harmful law.”
Statement from House Speaker Tim Moore:
“Today a federal judge ruled that the injunction on North Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban is ‘patently contrary to the rule of law as determined by the Supreme Court’ and should be lifted. I am encouraged that, although our attorney general has failed to do his duty, today we have a ruling that upholds the law.”
Statement from North Carolina Right to Life:
“North Carolina Right to Life applauds US District Judge William Osteen’s decision yesterday to reinstate the North Carolina ban on abortions after 20 weeks in light of the recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade in the Dobbs decision June 24, 2022. This is a step in the right direction respecting the sanctity and dignity of life, even the unborn life in the womb.
This North Carolina law was put in place in 1973 after the passage of Roe v Wade. At the time of its enactment in 1973, there were many more pro-life Democrats in the North Carolina Gen. Assembly.
At 20 weeks of pregnancy, the babies are much more developed and functional. There have been a few cases of premature babies born at 21 weeks that have survived and gone home after a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. Babies at 20 weeks can feel pain, can hear their mother’s voice, frequently move and can suck their thumb. Their little arms and legs and facial features are easily distinguished on ultrasound. They have 10 fingers and toes and their heart has been beating since approximately 6 weeks gestational age. Before they are born, their heart will have beat over 54,000,000 times.
Life is precious and every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death, should be respected and dignified. The baby in the womb is a unique individual with 23 chromosomes from the mother and 23 chromosomes from the father. Just as no 2 snowflakes are alike, so also no two human beings have the same DNA and they are unique in all the universe.”
(WATCH BELOW: Groups expected at SC state capitol to protest proposed near total abortion ban)
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