A U.S. federal judge on Monday allowed the state of Texas to begin enforcing a law requiring abortion providers to show or describe to a woman an ultrasound image of her fetus, but criticized an appeals court that earlier overturned his decision to block parts of the statute.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks said he was forced to follow the federal appellate court's ruling last month that ordered its immediate enforcement.
Sparks said his action on Monday came out of deference to the higher court. But he criticized the appellate court for "making puppets out of doctors" and stripping them of rights to freedom of speech under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
"There can be little doubt that (the law) is an attempt by the Texas Legislature to discourage women from exercising their constitutional rights by making it more difficult for caring and competent physicians to perform abortions," Sparks wrote in the opinion on Monday.
The law, enacted in 2011, requires abortion providers to perform an ultrasound on pregnant women, show and describe the image to them, and play sounds of the fetal heartbeat. Though women can decline to view images or hear the heartbeat, they must listen to a description of the exam.
A coalition of medical providers sued state officials in June, arguing that the law made doctors a "mouthpiece" for the state's ideological message.
Sparks had previously ruled that the law violated physicians' free-speech rights and temporarily blocked the law, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned the temporary ban in January.
The panel ruled that doctors could be required to provide information that is truthful, not misleading and relevant to the decision to have an abortion.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, which supports abortion rights, is seeking a rehearing before the full 5th Circuit.
"It is a terrible injustice that Judge Sparks could not rule in favor of protecting the constitutional rights of Texas doctors because of the Fifth Circuit panel's decision," Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights and a lawyer for the providers, said in an emailed statement.
So far, six of the 50 U.S. states have passed laws requiring abortion providers to perform an ultrasound on each woman seeking an abortion and provide the woman an opportunity to view the image, according to the Guttmacher Institute in Washington, which studies reproductive health issues.
While most of those states allow women to decline to view the image, Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina require women to hear the provider's verbal description of the ultrasound.
The laws in Oklahoma and North Carolina are temporarily not being enforced, pending court challenges.
(Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Will Dunham)