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Human Life: Supporter hopes abortion ban linked to fetal heartbeat will change minds

FARGO -- Young women have told Bette Grande that they didn't go through with an abortion because they saw an ultrasound of their unborn child.

She was the sponsor of a law four years ago requiring that ultrasound images be available for women considering an abortion.

Now she's hoping a law banning abortions in North Dakota when a fetal heartbeat can be detected -- as early as six weeks -- can prevent the procedures, regardless of how a promised legal challenge ends.

Grande, a Methodist and Republican state representative from Fargo, believes the intense national publicity surrounding the fetal heartbeat abortion ban has brought new awareness and understanding to the issue.

"It does give people the opportunity to realize that there is a beating heart," even in a fetus as young as six weeks, Grande said. "People are recognizing that."

The Center for Reproductive Rights has vowed to challenge the law on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, North Dakota's sole abortion clinic. Many legal experts, including some who oppose abortion, have said the law is flagrantly unconstitutional and is doomed to defeat in the courts.

But lawsuits can take years to resolve, and the publicity that will be generated during the dispute can itself be valuable to changing public opinion and ultimately stopping abortion, Grande said.

"I appreciate the fact that it will change hearts and minds," she said.

Listening to a heartbeat in the womb is vivid proof of life, she said.

"For 40 years that's all we heard, they're just a lump of tissue," Grande said, referring to the position that a fetus isn't viable for the first trimester.

But an analyst with the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion trends, doubts whether fetal heartbeat laws will have much of an effect.

Fetal ultrasound scans have been available for years, and have decreased demand for abortions, a decision Elizabeth Nash of Guttmacher said hinges on a woman's decision about whether she is "ready and able" to support a child.

"Even with ultrasound, that isn't a huge factor in the decision-making process," Nash said. "Ultrasound has been around for a very long time -- decades."

North Dakota became the first state to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, and the pending legal challenge will be closely watched, said Nash, state issues director for Guttmacher.

"It's totally reshaped the legal landscape around abortion," she said. "It's going to have national implications."

The law is scheduled to take effect Aug. 1.

Although North Dakota became the first state to pass a ban on abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, the idea emerged as a new battlefront in the abortion dispute two years ago.

Arkansas lawmakers passed a law in March that prohibits an abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected by an abdominal ultrasound, usually around 12 weeks. Legislators in Ohio rejected a heartbeat bill last year but may reconsider one this year.

In another development on the anti-abortion front, the North Dakota Legislature last week passed a bill outlawing abortions at 20 weeks, based upon the disputed belief that it marks the point when a fetus can feel pain.

The fetal heartbeat and fetal pain laws are part of a recent trend by abortion foes to move beyond the strategy of "chipping away" at the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion until a fetus reaches viability at around 22 weeks.

Judy Waxman, vice president for health and reproduction at the National Women's Law Center, said North Dakota's fetal heartbeat abortion ban is "unequivocally unconstitutional" in light of Roe and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

"I'm just not aware of what the folks who are supporting this particular law are thinking," she said.

Both Waxman and Nash noted that the anti-abortion movement appears divided over the wisdom of frontal attacks against Roe. Many mainstream opponents have avoided such drastic laws, fearing a backlash.

"I have heard there is a split in the ranks over what strategy to follow," Waxman said.

"The approach of chipping away at Roe is one that has worked well," Nash said, referring to restrictions such as counseling requirements and waiting periods.

North Dakota's fetal heartbeat abortion ban is almost a total ban on abortions, Nash said.

The last abortion bans passed by states were adopted by Utah and Louisiana in 1991. Those laws later were struck down by federal courts, she said.

North Dakota also passed an abortion ban in 1991, but the legislation was vetoed by then-Gov. George Sinner.