WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Reuters) - A North Carolina law requiring women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound of the fetus performed and described to them is unconstitutional because it forces doctors to voice the state's message discouraging the procedure, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Monday.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district judge's decision striking down the 2011 law, which was passed by North Carolina's Republican-led legislature over a veto by then-Governor Beverly Perdue, a Democrat.
"The state freely admits that the purpose and anticipated effect ... is to convince women seeking abortions to change their minds or reassess their decisions," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in a unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel in Richmond, Virginia.
"The state cannot commandeer the doctor-patient relationship to compel a physician to express its preference to the patient," the appeals court ruled, stating that "this compelled speech provision" violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
A spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general said North Carolina will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, noting that another federal appeals court earlier upheld a similar ultrasound requirement in Texas.
The North Carolina law requires physicians to perform an ultrasound, display the sonogram and describe the fetus to women seeking abortions. The ruling said the measure imposed an almost unprecedented burden on doctors' free speech rights to the detriment of them and their patients.
Lawmakers have said requiring narrated ultrasounds would provide crucial information to women making an irrevocable decision, even if they chose to avert their eyes and not listen to the explanation of the displayed fetus images.
The U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. In recent years, lawmakers in Republican-governed states have passed laws that seek to place restrictions on abortion.
Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, challenged North Carolina's law.
"Today’s ruling marks another major victory for women and sends a message to lawmakers across the country: It is unconstitutional for politicians to interfere in a woman’s personal medical decisions about abortion," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Barbara Holt, president of the anti-abortion group North Carolina Right to Life, said she hoped the Supreme Court would eventually weigh in on the law, which said she is needed to help women make informed choices about abortion.
"This would give her an opportunity to pause and really take into consideration what decision she’s making," Holt said. "We have a right that trumps free speech, and that’s our unalienable right to life."
Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott and Will Dunham