Texas sonogram bill halted in federal court

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August 31, 2011

State Senator Dan Patrick: A key sponsor of the sonogram bill

By Jimmy Ardis

AUSTIN, Texas: The controversial sonogram bill recently passed by the Texas Legislature hit a legal roadblock in federal court on Tuesday when several of its key provisions were temporarily halted on grounds that they may be unconstitutional. The decision came just two days before the bill was set to become law. If the legislation took effect as passed by Texas lawmakers, it would have required women having abortions to view a sonogram of the fetus 24 hours before undergoing the procedure. Under the law, doctors would be required to describe the results of sonograms to patients (including the features of the fetus) and be subject to criminal penalties for noncompliance.

US District Court Judge Sam Sparks of the Western District of Texas issued the decision upholding the sonogram requirement but ruling against provisions that force doctors to verbally describe the details to their patients. Citing concerns over the infringement of doctors' First Amendment rights to free speech, Sparks wrote that such a requirement "compels physicians to advance an ideological agenda with which they may not agree, regardless of any medical necessity and irrespective of whether the pregnant women wish to listen."[1] The ruling also rejected penalties against doctors who don't comply with the sonogram requirement, such as losing their medical licenses and being subject to misdemeanor criminal offenses.

Reactions to the ruling fell along predictable lines, with pro-choice groups applauding the decision and pro-life groups decrying it. Supporters claim the law would help ensure that women are fully informed about the abortion procedure and its consequences. Opponents see the law as a violation of both women's and doctors' rights. The president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, an international human rights organization dedicated to fighting for women's reproductive freedom, said the ruling was a "huge victory for women in Texas and a clear signal to the state Legislature that it went too far when it passed this law."[1]

Governor Rick Perry, whose recent presidential foray has peaked national interest in Texas politics, has been a strong and vocal supporter of the bill since its inception. He commended the legislature for passing the bill back in May, saying "Ensuring Texans have access to all the information when making such an important decision is a critical step in our efforts to protect life, and I look forward to this legislation reaching my desk very soon."[2] Perry lamented the ruling in a statement released after the decision was released. "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,"[1]

Supporters of the sonogram bill plan to appeal the decision immediately. Texas State Senator Dan Patrick, a sponsor of the legislation, is confident the decision will be overturned. "It is clear to me, from the inflammatory language in the order, that Judge Sparks was predisposed to this decision."[1]

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