Abortion providers in North Carolina filed a federal lawsuit Friday that challenges several provisions of a state law banning most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy in the dwindling days before the new restrictions take effect.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Dr. Beverly Gray, a Duke University OB-GYN, are asking a federal judge to block numerous provisions they argue are unclear and unconstitutional, or to place an injunction on the law to prevent it from being enforced.
Though the law may be commonly referred to as a 12-week abortion ban, the plaintiffs argue that it actually includes additional restrictions that many patients are not aware of — hurdles that will “impede health care professionals from providing quality care,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
“Many of these provisions are going to constrain an already very constrained abortion ecosystem in this state,” Planned Parenthood South Atlantic CEO Jenny Black told The Associated Press on Friday. “And so we really thought it was important that we challenged the elements of the law that do that.”
North Carolina has been one of the few remaining Southern states with relatively easy access to abortions in the wake of last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision to strip away constitutional protections for abortion. With the new restrictions set to take effect July 1, many out-of-state patients who had once viewed North Carolina as a refuge for care will soon have to travel even further up the coast to access abortions later in pregnancy.
The lawsuit comes one month after the Republican supermajority in the state’s General Assembly fast-tracked the measure through both chambers and overrode a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who called it “an egregious, unacceptable attack on the women of our state.”
He and other abortion-rights supporters have raised concerns about several provisions addressed in the complaint, including one that the plaintiffs argue could prevent providers from performing a medication abortion after 10 weeks of pregnancy, despite another provision stating it’s lawful through 12 weeks.
That is one example of the contradictory and confusing nature of the law, said lead attorney Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “The lack of clarity and vagueness run through,” she said.
Among the named defendants are North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley and the district attorneys who represent every county in the state where Gray and Planned Parenthood provide abortions.
Kinsley's office and Stein's office said they are reviewing the lawsuit. Stein, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2024, is an outspoken abortion-rights supporter but is named in the lawsuit because it's his job as attorney general to defend state laws in court.
Spokespeople for the Republican legislative leaders, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, did not immediately respond Friday to phone messages seeking comment.
In the lead-up to July 1, Black said Planned Parenthood staff members have been coming in early and working through lunch to treat as many patients as possible, while stressing to others that “time is of the essence.”
Republicans had pitched the 47-page measure as a middle-ground change to an existing state law banning nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, without exceptions for rape or incest. The new law adds exceptions, extending the limit through 20 weeks for rape and incest and through 24 weeks for “life-limiting” fetal anomalies, including certain physical or genetic disorders that can be diagnosed prenatally.
But abortion-rights advocates say limits on those exceptions, as well as new hurdles for patients and providers, make the law much more restrictive than the headline-grabbing 12-week limit conveys.
The lawsuit challenges a requirement that sexual assault survivors obtain abortions at a hospital after 12 weeks of pregnancy, rather than at one of the many clinics Planned Parenthood and other providers operate around the state.
Gray, an OB-GYN who provides care in a hospital setting, told the AP there is no procedural or medical difference between the unrestricted care she is able to provide miscarriage patients and the newly restricted care she provides abortion patients.
Similarly, Planned Parenthood clinics will be able to continue treating miscarriage patients after 12 weeks in cases where the fetus has already died but will be prohibited from providing identical care to rape and incest survivors in the context of an abortion.
“It’s the same care, and there’s zero regulations about caring for patients with miscarriages,” Gray said. “This is not about safety. This is about limiting access to abortion.”
Their complaint also seeks clarity on a provision that prohibits providers from advising how a person can access an abortion after 12 weeks, which Amiri said could violate the First Amendment if the court interprets it as preventing providers from helping patients access care in other states where it remains legal.
Amiri also raised concern about what she said was likely “a doozy of a drafting error” related to the state’s existing fetal homicide statute, which considers it homicide to willfully cause the death of an unborn child. That law contains exceptions for lawful abortions, but Amiri said when legislators replaced the abortion law, they removed the statutory reference for those exceptions.
“It leaves open the question of whether lawful abortion could be prosecuted under the fetal homicide statutes,” she said. “And that’s very concerning for everybody.”