What the new law is telling women

October 13, 2011 

— To the surprise of none, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and an array of other plaintiffs have sued to invalidate North Carolina's fraudulently named Woman's Right to Know Act. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that any American legislature - especially one that deems itself conservative - could enact such a law in the first place.

Our new abortion statute requires that, at least four hours prior to the procedure, a "real-time ultrasound" must be performed on the pregnant woman. The "image" must be displayed "in the (patient's) line of vision." Concurrently, her doctor is compelled, under threat of sanction, to provide a detailed, legislatively prescribed narrative "of what the display depicts."

If the pregnant woman objects, the physician is required to proceed with the government-mandated instruction. Thankfully perhaps, the law doesn't demand that the patient be restrained from closing her eyes or covering her ears. But if she chooses to do so, her doctor, against his own preference and considered medical determination, must continue to show the images and repeat the state's command.

I'm not kidding. This isn't some odd addendum to George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four." It is the law of North Carolina.

Of course, the Woman's Right to Know Act doesn't have much to do with medicine. Our legislators have decreed that state government will impose a one-sided, ideological "conversation" upon women in one of their most intimate, exposed and frightening moments. The compelled message, in effect, goes something like this:

"You have decided to have an abortion. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, you apparently have that right. But we're going to try to talk you out of it.

"Since we are the government, and since we know best, we now force you to undergo a regime of persuasion. We don't care that you don't like it. If you want an abortion, you must run the prescribed gantlet. We have assembled in the deliberative quarters of the North Carolina legislative building to decide - in this stunningly personal instant - what you are to be told.

"We've said, in the title to this statute, that it reflects your 'right to know'. But it's not a 'right' in the normal sense. This is not information you have the privilege to request. It is information you are compelled to hear, no matter how vehemently you protest. We say the statute assures 'consent'. But your consent to our mandatory display is neither relevant nor necessary.

"And not only are we going to compel a persuasive regimen, we are going to enlist you, and your body, to help make the case. We are forcing you to undergo an obstetrical procedure, having nothing to do with medical necessity, called a 'real-time sonogram'.

"You must submit to this procedure even if, or maybe especially if, you don't want it. It will provide images that we will, then, compel you to review. We are not barbarians, of course. We won't require the presence of deputies to affix your eyes or to clear your ears. We are, after all, a liberty-loving people. But we are so certain of the wisdom of our words that we will force them upon you in the face of protest.

"We will also enlist your doctor, against her judgment and desire, in our campaign. We have deliberated, again, and developed a script that your physician must pronounce on our behalf. She must do this - even if you don't want her to, even if she doesn't want to, and even if she believes doing so will violate her own medical discernment and sense of professional ethics. If you ask her to stop, she must keep talking - doing the bidding of her state-sponsored betters, regardless of conscience.

"If you find this offensive, that's unfortunate. But we have the superior judgment. You cannot be trusted to approach this crucial, defining decision with a mature and informed determination. We will explain what is most important for you to consider. You will thank us later. Trust us. We are sure of it. Our religion and our politics tell us it is so."

The boldness, the arrogance, the paternalism, the condescension, the imperiousness and the censure of N.C. 90-21.85 are breathtaking. The only thing that might be said to surpass them is the amazement one registers in recalling that the same crew that believes a health care mandate lays low our liberties has inflicted this forced march.

Gene Nichol is a professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of the university's Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.

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