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National News

March 16, 2013

North Dakota close to banning abortions at 6 weeks

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota on Friday moved closer to adopting what would be the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, with lawmakers sending the Republican governor measures that could set the state up for a costly legal battle over the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized the procedure.

The North Dakota Senate overwhelmingly approved two anti-abortion bills Friday, one banning abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and another prohibiting women from having the procedure because a fetus has a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome. North Dakota would be the first state in the U.S. to adopt such laws.

Supporters said their goal is to challenge the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until a fetus is considered viable, usually at 22 to 24 weeks, though anti-abortion activists elsewhere have expressed concern about the strategy.

"It's a good day for babies," said Rep. Bette Grande, a Republican from Fargo who introduced both bills. The state's only abortion clinic is in Fargo, and abortion-rights advocates say the measures are meant to shut it down.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple hasn't said anything to indicate he would veto the measures, and the bills have enough support in each chamber for the Legislature to override him.

Debate Friday was brief, with the Senate taking about an hour to pass both measures. No one spoke against the so-called fetal heartbeat bill, which the Senate took up immediately after passing the genetic abnormalities bill. The votes were largely on party lines, with Republicans supporting the measures and Democrats opposing them.

Opponents, who have promised legal challenges to both measures if they become law, urged Dalrymple to veto the bills. North Dakota is one of several states with Republican-controlled Legislatures and GOP governors that is looking at abortion restrictions. But the state is better positioned than most for a long court fight: It has budget surplus nearing $2 billion thanks to new-found oil wealth.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the measures "extreme," saying they would make North Dakota "the first state in the nation to ban most abortions."

"In America, no woman, no matter where she lives, should be denied the ability to make this deeply personal decision," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said in a statement.

Arkansas passed a 12-week ban earlier this month that prohibits most abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected using an abdominal ultrasound. That ban is scheduled to take effect 90 days after the Arkansas Legislature adjourns.

A fetal heartbeat can generally be detected earlier in a pregnancy using a vaginal ultrasound, but Arkansas lawmakers balked at requiring women seeking abortions to have the more invasive imaging technique.

North Dakota's measure doesn't specify how a fetal heartbeat would be detected. Doctors performing an abortion after a heartbeat is detected could face a felony charge punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Women having an abortion would not face charges.

While some abortion opponents welcomed Arkansas' new law as a bold challenge to Roe v. Wade, others favor more incremental strategies, fearing such bans could lead to emphatic rejections in court.

A similar fetal heartbeat bill was debated by Ohio lawmakers last year before being blocked by the Senate president. The measure, which could be revived this year, fractured Ohio's anti-abortion movement in a debate over its tactical effectiveness.

Grande told lawmakers that fears about a legal challenge shouldn't prevent them from approving the North Dakota measure.

"Whether this is challenged in court is entirely up to the abortion industry," Grande told lawmakers this week. "Given the lucrative nature of abortion, it is likely that any statute that reduces the number of customers will be challenged by the industry."

During the Senate debate, one senator who had spoken out against the genetic abnormalities bill left the chamber in protest. The move forced the Senate to briefly halt debate, because the chambers rules require senators to be formally excused. The Senate was able to move forward with proceedings on the bill by passing a motion to excuse the senator.

"It was absolutely a silent protest," Sen. Connie Triplett told The Associated Press after the vote. "North Dakota will have a harder time recruiting and retaining doctors because doctors will not want to be arrested for advising women on abortion issues."

Sen. Margaret Sitte, a Republican from Bismarck, said the genetic abnormality bill is meant to ban the destruction of life based on "an arbitrary society standard of being good enough." Some test results pointing to abnormalities are incorrect, she said, and doctors can perform surgeries even before a baby is born to correct some genetic conditions.

Sitte's voice cracked as she described developmentally challenged children she knows. "Their hugs are tighter, their laughter louder and their empathy more sincere" than so-called "normal people," she said.

The genetic abnormalities bill also bans abortion based on gender selection. Pennsylvania, Arizona and Oklahoma already have such laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion restrictions across the U.S.

The Senate approved the genetic abnormalities bill 27-15; the House vote was 64-27. The Senate approved the fetal heartbeat bill 26-17; the House vote was 63-28.

 

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