By Steve Gorman
Aug 17 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday reinstated a decades-old North Carolina ban on abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision allowing states to freely regulate such procedures.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen in Greensboro lifted an injunction he had imposed in May 2019 barring enforcement of the 20-week cutoff as a violation of the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade opinion that broadly legalized abortion nationally.
Under Roe, the high court established women's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy and ruled that states could only restrict abortions once the fetus was potentially viable outside the womb - generally starting at 24 to 28 weeks of gestation - unless a mother's health was at risk.
Roe's precedent was overturned on June 24 by the Supreme Court's new conservative majority in a Mississippi case titled Dobbs v. Jackson, immediately clearing the way for all states to regulate abortion as they see fit, regardless of fetal viability.
The North Carolina statute restored by Osteen outlaws abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, unless the mother's life is in danger. A full-term pregnancy typically runs to about 40 weeks, and abortions after 20 weeks are rare, experts say.
Following the Dobbs ruling, Osteen had invited all parties involved in litigation challenging the 20-week abortion limit, first enacted in 1973, to file court briefs arguing whether his injunction should remain in force or be dismissed.
Ultimately siding with North Carolina's Republican legislative leaders, Osteen wrote in a 14-page decision that Dobbs removed any "constitutional right to a pre-viability abortion," thus erasing any legal basis for the injunction.
He also dismissed arguments from local district attorneys who said dismissing the injunction would have no practical effect on prosecutions under the law because they had no intention of enforcing the 20-week cutoff.
North Carolina, whose governor and attorney general are both Democrats who support abortion access, has remained one of the South's few remaining redoubts for largely unrestricted reproductive health services after the Dobbs decision last month.
Several neighboring states have since outlawed abortions after six weeks, when many pregnant women have often yet to even realize they are expecting. The highest state court in South Carolina on Wednesday blocked enforcement of its six-week cutoff while it considers a challenge to the law by a Planned Parenthood affiliate and other abortion providers.
North Carolina Governor Ray Cooper on July 6 signed an executive order protecting abortion access in his state and declaring it a safe haven for women seeking reproductive services from other states. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)