Judge blocks part of North Carolina abortion law

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina Tue Oct 25, 2011 8:54pm EDT

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WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina cannot require abortion providers to show and describe to pregnant women images from ultrasounds performed before the procedures, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles temporarily halted that part of the state's new abortion law, set to take effect on Wednesday. The judge ruled that those challenging the law had shown they were likely to prove that the provision violated their constitutional rights.

The provision requires abortion providers to perform an ultrasound at least four hours before the procedure and to describe to the patient the images seen on the ultrasound. Providers also must offer pregnant women a chance to hear the fetal heartbeat.

The judge left in place other portions of the law, including a provision that imposes a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion.

Several North Carolina physicians and health care providers sued on behalf of themselves and their patients, arguing that the ultrasound requirements forced them to deliver the state's message discouraging abortions against their will.

"Today the court stood on the side of women and health care providers who are faced with personal, private and very complicated medical decisions every day," said Melissa Reed, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood Health Systems, one of the plaintiffs.

Opponents of the law said they were confident that they would prevail in having the ultrasound provision thrown out for good.

Barbara Holt, president of North Carolina Right to Life and a supporter of the new law, said she was encouraged that the judge allowed most of it to go into effect but disappointed that the ultrasound requirements were blocked.

The state contends the ultrasound requirements would help protect the psychological health of patients and prevent coerced abortions.

"We are confident that the courts, upon further review, will allow the ultrasound provision to go into effect," she said.

The state's Republican-led General Assembly passed the new abortion restrictions this summer, overriding a veto by Democratic Governor Bev Perdue.

North Carolina is the third state to approve a law requiring that a woman be shown an ultrasound before her abortion, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights organization. Similar requirements in Texas and Oklahoma also have been blocked by courts.

(Additional reporting by Ned Barnett; Editing by Greg McCune)

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