Judge Catherine Eagles granted a temporary restraining order for a provision in the new abortion law pertaining to the administration of medication to end a pregnancy in the very early stages. The judge said the law is too ambiguous and "does not provide sufficient standards to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement."
Abortion providers had last week requested a blanket order halting all of the July 1 restrictions pending their court challenge. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and a physician argued several sections in the newly revised law were so vague and seemingly contradictory that doctors could unintentionally break the law, leaving them unable to care for women seeking legal abortions.
Read the judge's ruling:
But the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed legislation this week revising or repealing nearly all of the challenged provisions, making arguments against most of them moot. Among other things, the lawmakers clarified that medication abortions remain legal in nearly all cases through 12 weeks and that a lawful abortion remains an exception to North Carolina's fetal homicide statute.
"I want to be clear that this is going to have devastating consequences for North Carolinians, but the judge's order will mitigate some of the harm that SB20 will have on patient's lives," Planned Parenthood attorney Peter Im
Eagles, who was nominated by former President Barack Obama, had said in court that it would be overly broad to block enforcement of the entire law. Instead, she directed that for at least the next two weeks, the state cannot enforce a rule saying doctors must document the existence of a pregnancy within the uterus before conducting a medication abortion.
The abortion providers' attorneys argued that the language raised questions about whether abortion pills can be dispensed when it's too early in a pregnancy to locate an embryo using an ultrasound - subjecting a provider to potentially violating the law.
"If the pregnancy is in early stages and the physician cannot document the existence of an intrauterine pregnancy, then the physician cannot comply with this requirement," Eagles wrote. She said she'll revisit the rule as well as other challenges in upcoming hearings.
Before Saturday, North Carolina had a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks. The new rules reduce it to 12 weeks, but add new exceptions through 20 weeks for cases of rape and incest and through 24 weeks for "life-limiting" fetal anomalies. A medical emergency exception also remains in place.
Planned Parenthood has 14 abortion clinics in North Carolina. Staff started implementing new practices -- including turning away patients seeking an abolition -- this week in preparation for the new law.
"Our patients are devastated and the doctors who care for them are devastated. We already this week have had to start navigating patients out of state, knowing that they would not be eligible for care tomorrow in North Carolina," Dr. Katherine Farris said.
The NC Values Coalition hailed the ruling as a win for life.
"Today's ruling by Judge Eagles to allow the vast majority of North Carolina's landmark pro-life law, The Care for Women, Children and Families Act, to go into effect on July 1 is a huge victory for women and their unborn babies," Executive Director Tami Fitzgerald said. "Starting tomorrow, unborn babies at 12 weeks gestation and later will be legally afforded the right to life. In addition, pregnant women will also benefit from the bills' millions in appropriations which provide a safety net of support to make it easier for them to choose life. Only a tiny, insignificant portion of the law was enjoined for two weeks, so this is a huge victory. The abortion industry will continue to fight for ways to fund their abortion mills, but NC Values will not stop until every unborn child is protected from abortion."
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the abortion law in May, but Republicans overrode him using their veto-proof GOP majorities in both chambers. Cooper then signed the clean-up bill, which had overwhelming bipartisan support. Although a strong abortion-rights supporter, Cooper said it was important to clarify the rules because the original measure was "so poorly written that it is causing real uncertainty for doctors and other health care providers."
Supporters of the new restrictions called them a middle-ground change in a state where some anti-abortion advocates wanted a ban imposed as soon as ultrasound can detect cardiac activity or about six weeks. Critics argue that the 12-week standard, along with new restrictions on providers, abortion clinics, and patients, will make it harder for low-income women and those in rural areas to obtain lawful abortions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.