Clinics Challenge Louisiana Abortion Laws

     BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) - Six medical clinics have challenged Louisiana laws on abortion, including the "Ultrasound Statute," which could force doctors to make women take home ultrasound pictures of their fetuses, even if the women resist, according to the federal complaint.
     The Hope Medical Group for Women and five other clinics say the two state laws are vague, "will deter qualified, reasonable health care providers from entering the field of abortion provision," will "make it more difficult for women in Louisiana to obtain abortion services," and are "not rationally related to any legitimate state interest."
     The two statutes in question are the Exclusion Statute, which, the plaintiffs say, would exclude abortion services from medical malpractice coverage, and the Ultrasound Statute.
     "The plain language of the Exclusion Statute applies only to health care providers when they are performing certain illegal abortions," the complaint states. "Plaintiffs believe, however, that defendants intend to apply the Exclusion Statute to health care providers performing lawful abortions. Such application would be unconstitutionally vague. It would also deny abortion providers equal protection of the law by excluding them from access to benefits that are available to all other health care providers."
     A doctor's failure to comply with either statute could subject them to criminal and civil liability and professional discipline.
     Louisiana law requires that "'before a physician performs an abortion on a woman he has reason to believe is carrying an unborn child of twenty or more weeks gestational age,' the physician must make a determination of whether the fetus is viable, and that determination must by aided by the performance of an ultrasound examination," according to the complaint.
     "Viable," under the law, means the fetus that has a "reasonable likelihood of sustained survival ...outside the body of his mother, with or without artificial support," unless the pregnancy would jeopardize the life or health of the pregnant woman.
     The plaintiffs say that if the Ultrasound Statute takes effect, it would change the 20-week threshold for mandatory ultrasound, requiring that an ultrasound be performed on every woman who seeks an abortion.
     The clinics say the law requires that the ultrasound technician make three offers: to show the woman the ultrasound as it takes place; to explain what the ultrasound depicts; and to provide the woman with a sealed envelope marked "ultrasound print" that contains an ultrasound photo of the fetus.
The plaintiffs say the language does not explain whether the health care professional must make the woman take the sealed envelope containing the ultrasound print, even if she has said she does not want it. ("In the event that the person performing a pre-abortion ultrasound examination offers to provide the woman seeking an abortion with a sealed envelope that contains an ultrasound photograph of her pregnancy and the woman declines the offer, it is not clear whether the Ultrasound Print Provision requires the person performing the ultrasound examination to compel the woman to accept the envelope.")
     The plaintiffs say that making every patient take a copy of her ultrasound would result in a large amount of personal information leaving the "confines of the confidential medical facility" and make its way into the public world.
     "The sensitivity of the information reflected in the patients' ultrasound prints cannot be overstated," the clinics say.
     "At Hope Medical, for example, every print reveals the woman's name, the fact that she is pregnant, the gestational age of the fetus, and that fact that the woman obtained her ultrasound at Hope Medical, a facility publicly known to provide abortions."
     The plaintiffs say that if "a woman is required to take a copy of her ultrasound print, there is a risk that it will be discovered by the woman's partner, relatives, co-workers, or other persons to whom the woman may not wish to disclose her pregnancy or her consideration of an abortion."
     The clinics say this could be dangerous, because for "women in abusive relationships, disclosure of a pregnancy or an abortion to an abusive partner is likely to spark violence."
     The plaintiffs add that the "ultrasound print may also be discovered by anti-abortion extremists. For example, an ultrasound print thrown into a garbage can near a clinic might be discovered by extremists surveiling the clinic, particularly since the print will be contained in an envelope clearly stating its contents."
     The clinics claim the Exclusion Statute "would violate women's fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy because both its purpose and effect would be to deter qualified, responsible health care providers from performing lawful abortions, thereby imposing a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking abortions."
     The plaintiffs add: "The exclusion of health care providers from participating in the [Medical Malpractice] Fund when they are providing lawful abortions is not rationally related to any legitimate state interest."
     Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell is a defendant, along with dozens of other state officials. The plaintiffs are represented by William Rittenberg of New Orleans.