March 18, 2013 — The North Dakota Senate on Friday voted to approve a bill (HB 1456) that would ban abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy if a fetal heartbeat is detectable, Reuters reports. If signed into law, the bill would be the most-restrictive abortion measure in the U.S. (Thompson, Reuters, 3/15).
Abortion would be outlawed when a fetal heartbeat is "detectable" using "standard medical practice," which can occur as early as six weeks with a transvaginal ultrasound or between 10 and 12 weeks with an abdominal ultrasound. The bill does not say which method must be used. The bill includes exceptions to prevent the death or severe health complication of the pregnant woman but not for rape or incest. Physicians could face felony charges and up to five years in prison if they perform an abortion when a heartbeat can be detected.
Separately, senators approved a measure (HB 1305) that would ban abortions sought for genetic abnormalities or the sex of the fetus. North Dakota would become the first state to ban abortions because of evidence of fetal abnormalities, and the fourth state -- behind Arizona, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania -- to ban sex-selective abortions (Eckholm, New York Times, 3/15). Both bills passed the State House last month (Reuters, 3/15).
Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) is scheduled to meet with advisers Monday to discuss the abortion measures, as well as other bills. The governor has until Wednesday to sign or veto the legislation (MacPherson, AP/Grand Forks Herald, 3/17). Dalrymple has not indicated whether he will sign the abortion bills into law (Reuters, 3/15). If approved, the measures would take effect Aug. 1 (Smith, Politico, 3/18).
Abortion-rights groups -- including the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union -- swiftly condemned the measures and vowed to take legal action. They noted that the legislation directly clashes with U.S Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, or about 24 weeks (New York Times, 3/15).
"The passage of this law is nothing short of a frontal assault on the U.S. Constitution, 40 years of Supreme Court precedent, and the health and fundamental rights of women," said CRR President and CEO Nancy Northup. The group -- which represents North Dakota's sole abortion clinic, the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo -- warned that at six weeks, the ban would take effect before many women learn they are pregnant (Reuters, 3/15).
North Dakota is in a better position to defend against a legal challenge than other states with budget deficits, the AP/Miami Herald reports. North Dakota has a nearly $2 billion budget surplus, the Herald notes.
Nonetheless, state Sen. Mac Schneider (D) urged the Legislature to focus on areas in need of improvement -- including crime reduction and housing shortages -- rather than "expensive and potentially protracted abortion litigation" (MacPherson, AP/Miami Herald, 3/15).