N.D. Six-Week Abortion Ban, Other Restrictions Draw Lawsuit

June 26, 2013 — The Center for Reproductive Rights on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to block two of North Dakota's recently enacted abortion restrictions, including a measure that sets the earliest abortion ban in the nation, the New York Times reports (Eckholm, New York Times, 6/25).

The laws -- signed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) in March and set to take effect Aug. 1 -- include a measure (HB 1456) that prohibits abortion once a fetal heartbeat is "detectable," which can occur as early as six weeks if a transvaginal ultrasound is used. The other new law (HB 1305) prohibits abortions sought because of the sex of the fetus or genetic defects, such as Down syndrome (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/11).

Constitutionality Questioned

The laws' opponents say they are unconstitutional (AP/Minnesota Public Radio, 6/25). The Supreme Court has held that a woman has a right to an abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb, which is typically around 24 weeks of gestation.

CRR President Nancy Northup said the measures "seek to interfere directly in personal, private medical decisions that the Constitution and more than 40 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent guarantee to women as a fundamental right." The group filed the suit in Federal District Court in Bismarck on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic of Fargo.

Backers of the laws anticipated the legal challenges but hope the fight will eventually reach the Supreme Court and result in the justices striking down the fetal-viability standard (New York Times, 6/25).

Petition Effort Fails

In related news, an effort to put North Dakota's new abortion restrictions to a popular vote proved unsuccessful after supporters of the referendum failed to gather enough signatures for their petitions, the Forum News Service/Jamestown Sun reports (Jerke, Forum News Service/Jamestown Sun, 6/25).

The petitions sought votes on the six-week abortion ban, the ban on abortions sought because of the sex of the fetus or genetic defects, and a third law (SB 2305) that requires physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital (MacPherson, AP/ABC News, 6/21).

Supporters of the petitions needed 13,452 signatures on each petition to qualify the measures for the ballot (Forum News Service/Jamestown Sun, 6/25).

The petitions' backers blamed their failure in part on opposition to the effort from women's groups, who believe the courts are a more appropriate place to challenge the laws. North Dakota resident Gary Hangsleben, an organizer of the petition effort, said he opposes abortion but thinks state voters should decide on the new laws.

North Dakota Women's Network Executive Director Renee Stromme said, "If we take it to the ballot, will it make any difference? Legislators and anti-abortion groups will just bring it back up when the Legislature meets again."

Tammi Kromenaker, director of the Red River Women's Clinic, said, "Constitutional rights are not up for a popular vote," adding, "It's important to hammer these out in the courts" because it "will affect other states, not just North Dakota" (AP/ABC News, 6/21).