Ultrasound laws are constitutional

Posted: March 25, 2012

Scott W. Gaylord and Thomas J. Molony?are both professors at the Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, N.C.

The next wave of abortion regulation has arrived. Pennsylvania currently is considering whether to join 23 states that already have laws regulating - and in some cases requiring - the use of ultrasounds in connection with abortion procedures. Similar legislation is pending in nine other states, and the trend shows no sign of stopping.

The ultrasound laws are being hotly debated in state capitals and roundly criticized on editorial pages. Even the comic strip Doonesbury recently ran a story line lambasting Texas' law, which requires physicians to conduct an ultrasound, display the fetal images to the woman, and explain those images before performing an abortion.

Under Pennsylvania House Bill 1077, a woman seeking an abortion must have an ultrasound and have the fetal images displayed to her. Unlike in Texas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, though, a physician would not have to give a detailed explanation of the ultrasound images unless the woman requested it.

Much of the criticism of the Pennsylvania bill reflects a passionate disagreement with the legislative policy underlying ultrasound requirements. In a recent editorial, USA Today asserted that the purpose of "such laws has nothing to do with good medicine" but "is to dissuade women from having an abortion." Moreover, drawing on a University of California, San Francisco, study, the editors suggested that these laws are ineffective because, in the study, "not one changed her mind and decided against an abortion" after viewing an ultrasound.

Whether ultrasound laws represent good policy or are effective, though, is a separate question from whether such laws are constitutional. Under the Supreme Court's 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, states have a right "to ensure that a woman apprehend the full consequences of her decision" and can require physicians to provide "truthful and not misleading" information about the abortion procedure and the development of the fetus. As the Fifth Circuit noted in upholding the Texas speech-and-display statute this year, ultrasound images and descriptions of those images "are the epitome of truthful, nonmisleading information."

Those criticizing the growing number of ultrasound laws frequently ignore the fact that the Constitution permits states to try to dissuade women from having an abortion. In Casey, the Supreme Court expressly acknowledged that a state may "further its legitimate goal of protecting the life of the unborn by enacting legislation aimed at ensuring a decision that is mature and informed, even when in so doing the state expresses a preference for childbirth over abortion."

Moreover, recent empirical evidence indicates that speech-and-display laws are effective. According to a 2011 Quinnipiac University study, "ultrasound requirement laws reduce the odds of a woman having an abortion quite substantially," which is probably why speech-and-display regulations have elicited such powerful reactions on both sides of the abortion debate.

Under Casey, states have broad authority to pass abortion regulations that are reasonable and do not impose an undue burden on a "woman's right to make the ultimate decision." Given that ultrasounds routinely are used prior to an abortion (and, therefore, do not impose an undue burden on a woman's decision), recent court challenges to the Texas and North Carolina speech-and-display requirements have focused on the First Amendment rights of physicians. In particular, the physicians have argued that requiring them to display and describe ultrasound images violates their right to be free from compelled speech.

The Supreme Court already has considered - and rejected - this argument. In Casey, providers of abortion services contended that physicians had a First Amendment right "not to provide information about the risks of abortion, and childbirth, in a manner mandated by the state." While acknowledging that mandatory disclosures "implicate" physicians' First Amendment rights, the court held that, in the context of "the practice of medicine," physicians were "subject to reasonable licensing and regulation by the state" and consequently could be compelled to provide disclosures about childbirth and abortion.

The criticisms of speech-and-display requirements, therefore, must be understood for what they are - critiques of the policy choices that state legislatures across the country are making. To the extent those critical of these policy choices seek a constitutional prohibition on mandatory ultrasounds, they actually are advocating a return to the standard set forth in Roe v. Wade, under which virtually all abortion regulations were struck down.

But Roe is not the law. Casey is. And under Casey, Pennsylvania has substantial latitude to regulate abortion by requiring the disclosure of truthful, nonmisleading information, such as ultrasound images of the fetus within.

E-mail the writers at sgaylord@juno.com and tommolony@bellsouth.net.

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