NC Doctors File Lawsuit Against 12-Week Abortion Ban

Hundreds of reproductive-freedom demonstrators gathered for a rally in Raleigh on May 19 to watch North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper veto the 12-week abortion ban. The legislature overrode the veto the following week. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)

By Michael McElroy

June 16, 2023

While the suit condemns the entirety of the abortion ban, it focuses on vague provisions that make it unclear when exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother would actually be applied.

A group of North Carolina medical professionals filed a lawsuit on Friday challenging key provisions of the state’s new 12-week abortion ban that goes into effect on July 1.

The suit, brought by Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Dr. Beverly Gray, a North Carolina OB/GYN, asks the court to address the ban’s “tangled web of medically unnecessary, inconsistent, and dangerous restrictions on care.”

The bill establishing the 12-week was introduced by Republican lawmakers in May and voted on less than 48 hours later, with little public debate and no chance for amendments. The language in many sections of Senate Bill 20 was so vague that even its exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother left lots of uncertainty on how they would be applied. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but the Republican supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly overrode the veto, making it law.

While the plaintiffs condemn the entirety of the abortion ban, the suit asks the courts to “address and clarify” several of these vague provisions, including:

  • Language that “appears to prevent providers from providing medication abortion after 10 weeks of pregnancy, despite another provision of  S.B. 20 that explicitly states medication abortion is lawful through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.”
  • Requirements that patients seeking an abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy under the law’s rape and incest provisions must do so in a hospital and not an abortion clinic, “despite the overwhelming safety of abortion care and well-trained medical professionals who can effectively provide care in a clinic setting as they have done for decades.”
  • Provisions “requiring certain information be provided to the patient 72 hours before the abortion with no exception for medical emergencies, despite other sections of S.B. 20 which outline a medical emergency exception to the 72-hour mandatory delay.”
  • Measures barring doctors from advising patients to seek abortion care in other states after 12 weeks, even if it is in the patient’s best health interest. This clause, the suit says, violates both medical professionals’ First Amendment rights and their responsibility to their patients.

“Starting July 1, patients and health care providers in North Carolina will be forced to endure the harms of this sweeping abortion ban and its tangled web of medically unnecessary, inconsistent, and dangerous restrictions on care,” Jenny Black, President & CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit.

“Thousands of people are depending on us to fight for their ability to get the health care they need and deserve, and that is what we are doing today in court,” she added.

The bill also adds new licensing requirements for many abortion providers that could shut down all six existing Planned Parenthood clinics in the state. There are only 14 abortion clinics total operating in North Carolina, meaning nearly half of them could be forced to close. 

In a statement, Dr. Gray, the other plaintiff in the suit, said that court needed to step in not just because the bill violated fundamental rights to healthcare, but because it was written and voted on so quickly that the resulting language is vague, sloppy and dangerous.:

“Given the hurried passage of this bill without guidance from the medical community, S.B. 20 lacks clarity and asks patients and health care providers to overcome impossible hurdles to obtain and provide care,” Gray said in the news release.

 “These hurdles are not based in science but are unreasonable and will make it virtually impossible for many people to receive abortion care in our state.”

More than 1,400 doctors and other health care professionals sent an open letter to North Carolina lawmakers in February, when it was clear Republican leaders were working toward some sort of restrictions beyond the current 20-week ban. 

Abortion restrictions are dangerous, the letter said, and any further barriers to care would increase maternal death rates and further strain the state’s health care system by forcing clinics to close.

Once the text of the bills was released, Cardinal & Pine spoke to several doctors who said the bill was even worse than it seemed.

Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine doctor who helped organize the open letter effort, but was not a part of the lawsuit, said in a text message on Friday that the suit was “a step in the right direction after NC took ten steps backward with the passage of SB20.” 

Still, she said, “it’s a sad day in NC when the practice of high-quality, evidence based medicine hinges on judge rulings on legislative interference.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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