Published: Jul 06, 2011 8:46 PM EDT
Updated: Jul 06, 2011 7:46 PM EDT

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A reproductive rights group asked a federal judge Wednesday to block a new Texas law requiring doctors to conduct a sonogram before performing an abortion, arguing it is vague and unconstitutional.

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights has filed a lawsuit to overturn the law. Wednesday's hearing was on a request for U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks to block the law from taking effect on abortions performed starting Oct. 1, pending the lawsuit's outcome.

Sparks said he would issue a ruling on the injunction request before Oct. 1.

The law requires doctors to describe the fetus' features and allow pregnant women to hear the fetal heartbeat. The law doesn't allow women to opt-out of the description, with exemptions for cases of rape or incest and when a fetus has fatal abnormalities.

The center argues that the law forces doctors to say things against their will and violates medical ethics. Such ethics say a physician may not act upon the patient without her consent, the physician must respect the patient's autonomy, and the physician must act in the patient's best interests.

The law "damages the relationship of trust between physician and patient, and with compelled and unwanted speech imposes stress and emotional strain on women as they prepare to undergo a medical procedure," the center argues in its lawsuit.

Supporters say the law is necessary to make sure women fully understand what an abortion entails. They cite cases where women later regretted having an abortion, and they insist the law will lead more women to decide against having one. About 81,000 abortions are performed in Texas every year, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who opposes abortion, signed the bill into law and says he believes it's necessary to protect unborn life.

"Even in Texas, where we pass the toughest laws in the nation, tens of thousands of lives are lost," Perry said when he signed the legislation. "This is a tragedy we must all work together to stop."

The Texas Medical Association has opposed the law because it dictates when a doctor must perform a procedure and how the doctor must deal with his or her patient. While a pre-abortion sonogram is routine, it is not considered a medical necessity.

Texas abortion providers who do not comply with the law would face loss of their medical license and possible criminal misdemeanor prosecution and fined up to $10,000. Only three other states require a sonogram for all women seeking abortion.

Sparks, who represented doctors and hospitals for about 30 years when he was an attorney before being appointed a federal judge in 1991, questioned the sections of the law requiring sonograms be performed "in a quality consistent with current medical practice" and that results be described "in a manner understandable to a lay person."

Failure to meet those standards could lead a physician to lose their license and be criminally prosecuted.

"That kind of gets my attention," Sparks said.

Bebe Anderson, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said doctors may have different types of sonogram machines that may produce different quality of images and audible heartbeats.

Texas Assistant Attorney General Erika Kane argued those standards are not vague and said the law requires descriptions that "ordinary people must be able to understand."

Sparks also questioned a provision that allows the state to make random, unannounced inspections of abortion provider facilities to ensure compliance and whether that would disrupt doctor-patient privacy.

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