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Federal court clears Texas law requiring pre-abortion sonogram

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 6:29 PM EST, Fri January 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Texas Health Services Department "moving forward" with law's implementation
  • Federal panel clears way for enforcement of law requiring sonogram before abortion
  • Abortion-rights group says law is "insulting and intrusive"
  • Gov. Rick Perry hails the decision as a victory

(CNN) -- A three-judge federal appeals panel ruled Friday that the state of Texas can move ahead with enforcement of a law requiring doctors to provide a sonogram to pregnant women before they get an abortion.

The mandate follows a ruling Tuesday from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturning a lower court's order blocking implementation of key parts of the law.

It is now up to the Texas Department of Health Services to set a timeline regarding the start of enforcement of the measure. The department could begin applying the law within 30 days, according to Charlie Castillo, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

"We are moving forward," said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services. "Today's mandate cleared the way for immediate enforcement, so we are quickly working toward full implementation and hope to have all the pieces in place in the coming weeks."

In August, just before the law was set to take effect September 1, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin found several portions of the law "unconstitutionally vague" and ruled that it violated the First Amendment by compelling doctors and patients to engage in government-mandated speech.

But the three-judge panel vacated Sparks' injunction against enforcing the law, saying opponents did not prove that it violated the Constitution.

As written, the law would require women seeking an abortion in Texas to view a picture of the embryo or fetus and hear a description of its development before having the procedure.

Sparks' injunction temporarily blocked Texas from enforcing any penalties against a doctor who failed to place sonogram pictures where a pregnant woman may see them or who does not make the fetus' heartbeat audible. It also blocked penalties against the woman.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Pennsylvania case "held that the fact that such truthful, accurate information may cause a woman to choose not to abort her pregnancy only reinforces its relevance to an informed decision," U.S. Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in a concurring opinion. "Insisting that a doctor give this information in his traditional role of securing informed consent is permissible."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate, praised the panel's ruling Tuesday. "We will continue to fight any attempt to limit our state's laws that value and protect the unborn," he said.

"The sooner we start providing sonograms to those considering abortions, the more lives we can save," Perry added in a statement. "The Fifth Circuit's decision requires abortion providers to immediately comply with the sonogram law, appropriately allowing Texas to enforce the will of our state, which values and protects the sanctity of life."

The suit was filed by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights. Nancy Northrup, the center's president and CEO, said Tuesday that the court decision was "extreme."

"This clears the way for the enforcement of an insulting and intrusive law whose sole purpose is to harass women and dissuade them from exercising their constitutionally protected reproductive rights," Northrup said in a statement. "Until today, every court that has reviewed similarly intrusive laws have ruled the laws unconstitutional."

The law, she said, "serves only to place multiple hurdles between women and the free and full exercise of their reproductive rights." The center, she said, is evaluating "all available means" to challenge the Texas law "and all laws that seek to undermine women's fundamental rights."

The bill generated some controversy in Texas but easily passed through the state's House and Senate, both of which are controlled by Republicans.

The law says that at least 24 hours before an abortion is performed, women must undergo a sonogram, a procedure that uses ultrasound to create an image.

The doctor is required to give, "in a manner understandable to a layperson, a verbal explanation of the results of the sonogram images, including a medical description of the dimensions of the embryo or fetus, the presence of cardiac activity and the presence of external members and internal organs," the law says.

CNN's Jamie Crawford, Carma Hassan, Alan Silverleib and Michael Martinez contributed to this report

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