Judge: Texas Can't Force Doctors To Show Sonogram Results

One of Rick Perry's legislative victories as governor of Texas was a law that fined doctors unless they offered to show sonograms to women seeking abortions, described fetal development in detail, and offered up audio of a heartbeat. Now a judge says that's unconstitutional.

U.S. district Judge Sam Sparks, appointed by George H.W. Bush, says the act constitutes compelled speech and violates the First Amendment rights of both doctors and patients. The law was supposed to take effect tomorrow, and the lawsuit had been brought by a group of doctors, as well as the Center for Reproductive Rights. Sparks wrote that he doubted the "wisdom" of the Act:

The Act's onerous requirements will surely dissuade or prevent many competent doctors from performing abortions, making it significantly more difficult for pregnant women to obtain abortions. Forcing pregnant women to receive medical treatment from less-skilled providers certainly seems to be at odds with ‘protecting the physical and psychological health and well-being of pregnant women.'"

Still, that wasn't legal grounds for dismissing it, he wrote, rejecting the plaintiffs' argument that the Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. He was, however, persuaded by the First Amendment argument, which has succeeded in a handful of other lawsuits against state abortion laws. The plaintiffs also argued that the law was unconstitutionally vague. The judge rejected most of these challenges (he called one "somewhat disingenuous") but agreed that it was vague in three ways.

Sparks seemed particularly disturbed by the compelled-speech burdens it put on pregnant women, including forcing a woman to say whether she was pregnant as a result of sexual assault or incest. He also wrote, "It is difficult to avoid the troubling conclusion (that) the Texas Legislature either wants to permanently brand women who choose to get abortions or views these certifications as potential evidence to be used against physicians and women." More broadly, the court objected to the state forcing doctors to engage in speech that wasn't medically necessary and with which they might not ideologically agree.

The state attorney general immediately announced that he'd appeal. And Perry issued a statement saying, "Every life lost to abortion is a tragedy, and today's ruling is a great disappointment to all Texans who stand in defense of life. This important sonogram legislation ensures that every Texas woman seeking an abortion has all the facts about the life she is carrying and understands the devastating impact of such a life-changing decision."

Judge Sam Sparks' Ruling On Abortion Sonogram Law [Scribd/Dallas Morning News]
Judge Stays Sonogram Law [Houston Chronicle]