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Two N.D. abortion laws to take effect today

BISMARCK - Two of North Dakota's four new laws to restrict abortions will take effect today.

One law says a woman will not be able to have an abortion more than 20 weeks into the pregnancy, which is when some say a fetus can feel pain. It is the only one of the four abortion laws passed by the Legislature this year not to face a legal challenge, though similar laws in other states are being challenged.

The other law taking effect says a woman will also not be able to seek an abortion if it's based solely on gender selection or a genetic abnormality of the fetus.

Tammi Kromenaker, director of the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, said the two laws are concerning, as they will restrict a woman's right to choose. However, she said the clinic doesn't perform an abortion after 16 weeks and she has never seen a woman ask for an abortion solely based on the child's sex or a genetic abnormality.

"When people are attempting to ban abortions for these kinds of reasons, they want to say there is value in everybody, but you can't know an individual's situation," she said. "We can't sit and pick and choose which situations are OK and which aren't."

Judges in Fargo and Bismarck granted the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights' request to stop two other laws from taking effect. One would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, perhaps as early as six weeks, and the other requires physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

The Center for Reproductive Rights believes the law prohibiting an abortion based on sex of the child or genetic abnormalities is unconstitutional and filed suit against the state, but did not ask to keep it from taking effect today.

"It's possible for the clinic to see women who have a genetic abnormality, but the idea that women are coming for an abortion solely for the purpose of sex selection is just ridiculous," said Janet Crepps, senior counsel for the center. "The number of women getting abortions in North Dakota is small, so the number of women that would fall in that category is even smaller."

The Center for Reproductive Rights acts on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic, the state's only abortion clinic.

Crepps said the clinic doesn't have legal standing to challenge the 20-week law since it's well known the Fargo clinic only performs abortions up to 16 weeks of pregnancy.

"The clinic's patients aren't going to get services at that point in pregnancy, so we don't feel like the clinic can meet the legal requirements to make the challenge," she said.

The landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an abortion is legal up until the unborn reaches viability outside the womb, or about 22 weeks.

Crepps said that difference of two weeks makes the law unconstitutional.

"The Supreme Court hasn't moved the line of viability," she said.

The North Dakota 20-week law does make an exception for a medical emergency.

The law cleared the House with a 60-32 vote and the Senate by a party-line vote of 30-17.

Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, co-sponsored the measure because "my district and myself are very pro-life," he said.

Campbell said the law going unchallenged and taking effect "is a positive thing for pro-lifers."

"It's one little step toward our ultimate goal to eliminate abortion, which is going to be a challenge," he said.

A debate over the 20-week ban has been taking place around the country.

The ban sailed through the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives in June, with Republican senators trying to push the issue in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

State legislatures have also taken up the law.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks nationwide abortion trends, there are eight states banning abortions after 20 weeks: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma and North Dakota.

Crepps said similar laws are being challenged in Georgia, Idaho and Arizona.

An Arizona court of appeals has struck down a similar law, and the state is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

If the high court rules it unconstitutional, it would make North Dakota's law void.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.