A first-in-the-nation law to outlaw most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is heard — possibly around six weeks gestation — has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge in North Dakota.
The law, which was to have taken effect Aug. 1, is "clearly invalid and unconstitutional," U.S. District Judge Daniel L. Hovland in Bismarck said in his Monday ruling that blocks enforcement of that part of a sweeping anti-abortion law while it is being litigated.
Lawyers for North Dakota's only abortion clinic, Red River Women's Clinic, praised the decision.
"The nation's most extreme abortion ban has been blocked, and the message to hostile politicians could not be clearer: The rights of women guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution and protected by 40 years of Supreme Court precedent cannot be legislated away," said Bebe Anderson, director of the U.S. Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The center filed a lawsuit in June against the law, HB 1456, on behalf of the Fargo clinic, which is known as MKB Management Inc., and its medical director Dr. Kathryn Eggleston.
In his ruling, Judge Hovland noted the provocativeness of the law, which was passed this year by strong majorities in both legislative chambers.
"The State has extended an invitation to an expensive court battle over a law restricting abortions that is a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women," he wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court has "unequivocally" said that states may not deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at a point prior to viability, he added, so HB 1456 is "clearly unconstitutional under an unbroken stream" of high court rulings.
The six-week "heartbeat" law was one of seven abortion-related laws that the Republican-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple passed this year, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Like other states, the North Dakota lawmakers passed a bill to outlaw most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, when unborn children are thought by many people to be capable of feeling pain. But the law forbidding most abortions after a detectable fetal heartbeat — which could occur around six weeks of pregnancy — was by far the most restrictive.
It was also intended to attract court attention: Mr. Dalrymple said when he signed the heartbeat bill in March that it was "a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade."
The North Dakota Catholic Conference noted Monday that Judge Hovland's temporary injunction did not affect a newly enacted law that forbids abortions performed only based on fetal abnormality or its sex.
"Although it is part of the clinic's lawsuit, absent further actions, that law should go into effect August 1, which would make North Dakota the first state in the nation to protect unborn children with disabilities," the North Dakota Catholic Conference said.
Separately, North Dakota's voters will also be in an abortion fight in the coming months. In March, the state's lawmakers became the first in the nation to pass a personhood amendment.
The measure now goes to voters, who will decide in November 2014 whether to amend their constitution to say "the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected."
Proponents are hoping to win at the ballot box and — as North Dakota state Sen. Margaret Sitte said — become "a direct challenge" to Roe v. Wade. The amendment should ensure that mother and unborn baby "are both treated as medical patients, that medical care is not inhibited, and that fertility treatments are not banned," Personhood USA said.
Opponents of the amendment say that it would criminalize miscarriages, interfere with infertility treatments, and force a single religious view — that life begins at conception — on everyone.