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Judge blocks North Dakota abortion law


 

A district judge has temporarily blocked a North Dakota law that forces physicians to tell patients that medication abortions may be reversed, calling the measure devoid of scientific support.

In a Sept. 10 ruling, Judge Daniel Hovland of the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota temporarily halted enforcement of North Dakota House Bill 1336, a law that required doctors to tell women that reversing the effects of abortion-inducing drugs is possible if patients changed their minds, but that “time is of the essence.” In his 24-page decision, Judge Hovland said the North Dakota law violates a physician’s right not to speak and goes far beyond any informed consent laws addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court or other courts to date.

“Legislation which forces physicians to tell their patients, as part of informed consent, that ‘it may be possible’ to reverse or cure an ailment, disease, illness, surgical procedure, or the effects of any medication – in the absence of any medical or scientific evidence to support such a message – is unsound, misplaced, and would not survive a constitutional challenge under any level of scrutiny,” Judge Hovland wrote in his ruling. “State legislatures should not be mandating unproven medical treatments, or requiring physicians to provide patients with misleading and inaccurate information.”

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum (R), signed HB 1336 into law in March. The measure requires that physicians inform patients at least 24 hours before a medication abortion that it may be possible to reverse the effects if they change their mind, and also mandates that doctors provide printed materials to patients with information about reversing the effects of an abortion-inducing drug.

The American Medical Association and the Red River Women’s Clinic based in Fargo, issued a joint legal challenge against North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in June over the law. The plaintiffs contend the North Dakota law violates physicians’ First Amendment rights that protect doctors from being compelled to speak against their will. The plaintiffs also argued that so-called abortion reversals are based on controversial, unproven theories that are rejected by major medical organizations.

The lawsuit also challenges an existing North Dakota law called the Abortion Control Act, that requires physicians to tell patients that abortion terminates “the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being,” which the plaintiffs contend is a controversial, ideological, and nonmedical message that forces physicians to act as the mouthpiece of the state. That part of the lawsuit was not addressed in Judge Hovland’s ruling.

AMA President Patrice A. Harris, MD, said the association was pleased that the judge blocked enforcement of HB 1336 while the case advances in the court system.

“The AMA filed this lawsuit in North Dakota because we strongly believe the government should not dictate what physicians say to their patients,” Dr. Harris said in a statement. “With this ruling, physicians in North Dakota will not be forced by law to provide patients with false, misleading, non-medical information about reproductive health that contradicts reality and science.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Stenehjem’s office said the attorney general is reviewing the order and declined to comment further.

At least seven other states have passed similar laws requiring physicians to tell patients about the possibility of medication abortion reversals, including Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Utah.

agallegos@mdedge.com

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