Appeals court affirms North Carolina's 20-week abortion ban is unconstitutional

North Carolina's decades-old ban on abortions after 20 weeks is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court found on Wednesday.

The decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirms the decision of a lower court, which first struck down the ban two years ago.

It has been a felony in North Carolina for the past 140 years to procure or administer an abortion, but following the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, the law was amended to bar abortions after 20 weeks, with exemptions for medical emergencies.

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The lawsuit was filed by a group of abortion providers and advocates in 2015, after the state legislature narrowed the medical exemption and further restricted the type of doctors permitted to perform abortions to "qualified physicians."

The amendments also instituted a 72-hour waiting period that women must observe before obtaining an abortion.

In the unanimous ruling, the three judge panel rejected the argument from that state that no abortion provider has ever been prosecuted under the law. 

"As a nation we remain deeply embroiled in debate over the legal status of abortion. While this conversation rages around us, this court cannot say that the threat of prosecution to abortion providers who violate the law is not credible," Judge Diana Motz wrote in the opinion. 

Motz, an appointee of former President Clinton, was joined by Judge Albert Diaz, appointed by former President Obama, and Judge Julius Richardson, appointed by former President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE.

"Amidst a wave of similar state action across the country, North Carolina has enacted legislation to restrict the availability of abortions and impose heightened requirements on abortion providers and women seeking abortions," Motz wrote. "Given these facts, we cannot reasonably assume that the abortion ban that North Carolina keeps on its books is 'largely symbolic.'"

The decision comes amid a national effort by conservatives to push the conservative-majority Supreme Court to overturn the abortion protections codified by the Roe v. Wade decision. 

The Supreme Court in May announced it will hear a challenge to Mississippi's ban on virtually all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, in which the justices will consider whether “all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions" are constitutional.