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Judge reinstates North Carolina's 20-week abortion ban

A row of people standing on a brick sidewalk facing traffic holding white, green, yellow and orange signs in support of abortion rights.
Cory Vaillancourt
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Abortion rights demonstrators gather in Waynesville in June 2022.

A federal judge has ruled that abortions are no longer legal after 20 weeks of pregnancy in North Carolina. U.S. District Judge William Osteen reinstated the abortion ban Wednesday after he said the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade in June erased the legal foundation for his 2019 ruling that placed an injunction on the 1973 state law.

The ruling erodes protections in one of the South's few remaining safe havens for reproductive freedom.

There are 14 clinics that provide abortion in the state. The only one in Western North Carolina is located in Asheville.

Osteen’s decision defies the recommendations of all named parties in the 2019 case, including doctors, district attorneys and the attorney general's office, who earlier this week filed briefs requesting he let the injunction stand.

In a statement released Wednesday, Governor Roy Cooper said he disagrees with the ruling and remains committed to protecting abortion rights.

"The significant problem with this ruling is that it will criminalize important health care that’s needed in certain extraordinary circumstances,” said Cooper. “Abortion past 20 weeks in pregnancy is exceptionally rare and happens because of a devastating health emergency or diagnosis. Denying women necessary medical care in extreme and threatening situations, even if rare, is fundamentally wrong, and we cannot let politicians mislead people about the real world implications of this harmful law."

Cooper previously signed an executive order protecting abortion providers and preventing extraditions.

Planned Parenthood South Atlantic warns that people will be forced to travel out of state for care. In a statement , the chapter’s President and CEO Jenny Black said “...these complicated issues should be navigated by the patient and their medical provider – not mandated by politicians.”

“The conversation about abortion later in pregnancy is dominated by political rhetoric and misinformation rather than the lived experiences of people who have had abortions later in pregnancy, many of whom experience complex pregnancies,” said Black.

Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore filed a brief in July asking Judge Osteen to lift the injunction on the 1973 state law banning nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

While Attorney General Josh Stein recused himself from the case, staff attorneys in his office filed a brief in support of the injunction.

“I will do everything in my power to continue to safeguard that right, especially as we see how women in other states are suffering when politicians take away their freedoms,” Stein said earlier this month.

In a statement released Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore applauded the judge’s decision to lift the injection, saying he was “encouraged that, although our attorney general has failed to do his duty, today we have a ruling that upholds the law.”

This ban means North Carolina now joins neighbors Georgia and Tennessee in further restricting abortion access. Yesterday a judge in South Carolina temporarily blocked the state’s 20-week abortion ban, Virginia still allows abortion up to the third trimester while West Virginia is currently locked in a political debate over the issue.

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