RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Abortions in North Carolina are no longer legal after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, eroding protections at one of the South’s few safe havens for reproductive freedom.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen reinstated an unenforced 20-week abortion ban, with exceptions for urgent medical emergencies, after saying June U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade erased the legal basis of its decision of 2019 which placed an injunction on the state law of 1973.
Her decision defies recommendations of all named parties in the 2019 case, including doctors, district attorneys and the attorney general’s office, who earlier this month filed briefs asking him to uphold the injunction.
“Neither this court, nor the public, nor lawyers, nor suppliers 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, Republican leaders in the General Assembly urged Osteen to reinstate the ban in a July 27 amicus curiae brief after the Democratic state attorney general, a staunch proponent of abortion rights, denied their request that he himself bring the ban before a judge.
“I am heartened that, although our attorney general has failed to do his homework, today we have a ruling that upholds the law,” House Speaker Tim Moore said, referring to the prosecutor. General of North Carolina, Josh Stein.
Osteen’s ruling adds fuel to an already contentious midterm election year after the Supreme Court’s decision thrust state-level politics into the spotlight. North Carolina Republicans will aim in November to clinch the five extra seats they need for a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature as Democrats dodge their challenges to preserve Cooper’s power.
Republican lawmakers say a successful election season could open the door to new restrictions on abortion when the General Assembly convenes early next year. Moore told reporters on July 26 that he would like to see the legislature consider banning abortions once the ultrasound first detects fetal heart activity – usually about six weeks after fertilization and before some patients know they are pregnant.
Cooper and other Democrats have already made abortion access a key campaign issue. The governor signed a decree on July 6, protecting out-of-state abortion patients from extradition and barring state agencies under its control from assisting in other states’ prosecutions of those traveling for the procedure.
“To deny women necessary medical care in extreme and threatening situations, however rare, is fundamentally wrong, and we cannot let politicians mislead people about the real implications of this harmful law,” Cooper said Wednesday. .
North Carolina has become a haven for residents of its more restrictive neighboring states, like Caroline from the south, Georgia and Tennesseewhere abortions are now illegal after six weeks.
Prior to Osteen’s decision, abortions were legal in North Carolina until fetal viability, which is usually between 24 and 28 weeks gestation, or in certain medical emergencies.
As other Southeast states continue to reduce access to abortion, Alison Kiser, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic, said limiting treatment in “a critical hotspot state” like North Carolina will have ripple effects across the region.
The number of out-of-state patients at Planned Parenthood health centers in North Carolina has tripled since the Supreme Court ruling, Kiser said. So far in August, 36% of abortion patients have traveled from other states, up from 14% in June.
But Republicans argue little will change with the return of the 20-week ban. According to Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention.
“Abortions after 20 weeks are rare, but it’s still extremely important that people have access to this care,” Kiser said. “The two main reasons people need abortion care later in pregnancy are because they have received new medical information or, even more so now, because they are facing obstacles that have delayed their care.”
The main delay, she said, is that of North Carolina Mandatory 72-hour waiting period have an abortion after a first visit to the doctor. 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 changed the state law that Osteen reinstated on Wednesday, narrowing the criteria for medical emergency that can justify an abortion after 20 weeks.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/H_Schoenbaum.