North Carolina’s ban on most abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court found on June 16, upholding a lower-court ruling.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled (pdf) that the state’s blanket ban is unconstitutional because it prohibits some pre-viability abortions, which would violate the 1992 landmark Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
It upheld a 2019 lower-court decision striking down the prohibition, which has been on the books in North Carolina since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973.
The lawsuit was filed in 2016 by three doctors and a Planned Parenthood affiliate after the Republican-dominated legislature in 2015 narrowed the scope of medical emergencies under which a woman would be exempt from the 20-week limit.
It allowed only “qualified physicians” to perform abortions and required that women must observe a 72-hour waiting period before obtaining an abortion—up from 24 hours.
In the unanimous ruling, the federal appeals court rejected an argument from the state that no abortion provider had ever been prosecuted under the law.
“As a nation we remain deeply embroiled in debate over the legal status of abortion. While this conversation rages around us, this court cannot say that the threat of prosecution to abortion providers who violate the law is not credible,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote in the 15-page opinion.
Motz, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, said recent actions by state lawmakers and those in other states to further restrict abortion appear to affirm that legislators are interested in seeing their measures implemented.
The circuit judge, joined by judges Albert Diaz and Julius Richardson, pointed to 20-week bans approved by legislators in South Carolina, South Dakota, and Ohio around the time the lawsuit was filed. The U.S. Supreme Court also agreed last month to consider a lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s 15-week ban.
“It is difficult to explain why the [North Carolina] legislature would have altered the text of the 20-week ban if it did not expect for those words to ever be given effect,” she wrote.
“Amidst a wave of similar state action across the country, North Carolina has enacted legislation to restrict the availability of abortions and impose heightened requirements on abortion providers and women seeking abortions. Given these facts, we cannot reasonably assume that the abortion ban that North Carolina keeps on its books is ‘largely symbolic,’” the judges wrote in the opinion.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic President and CEO Jenny Black in a statement said the ruling is “an important victory for our patients across North Carolina.”
“Abortion remains inaccessible for many North Carolinians, and we will continue to protect and expand access to this essential health care,” Black said.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose state backed North Carolina in its defense of the law, said in a statement that he’s “disappointed” with the judges’ decision.
“While we’re obviously disappointed by the court’s decision, we maintain our strong belief that life is precious and must be defended at every stage,” he said, according to Fox News. “That includes safeguarding unborn children from pain while also protecting the life of the mother. We will review the court’s decision and consider potential options.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.