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Revisions to North Dakota abortion laws advance for Senate vote

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved amendments to the bill

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North Dakota Catholic Conference Executive Director and General Counsel Christopher Dodson testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in the state Capitol.
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — Proposed revisions to North Dakota's abortion laws are poised for a state Senate vote, but not with all the changes physicians urged a panel of lawmakers to consider.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 25, unanimously approved amendments to Senate Bill 2150, brought by Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, and gave the bill a 5-1 "do pass" recommendation.

The bill now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate for a vote, the first hurdle for the bill brought in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the constitutional right to an abortion last year.

Myrdal has said the bill is to clear up language between the state's 2007 abortion trigger ban and 2013 "heartbeat bill." The latter bans abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected — as early as six weeks — “except when a medical emergency exists that prevents compliance” with the law.

The Red River Women's Clinic, North Dakota's sole abortion provider, moved from Fargo to Moorhead, Minnesota, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision last June that triggered North Dakota's 2007 law to take effect.

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The clinic is challenging the trigger law, which would ban virtually all abortions but for cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. The state Supreme Court will rule soon on a judge's temporary block of the trigger ban.

Under the ban, doctors could be charged with a Class C felony for performing an abortion during medical emergencies and in cases of rape or incest, but they could argue in court that the affirmative defenses for rape, incest and protection of the life of a mother outlined in the law protect them from criminal liability.

The bill would change the ban's affirmative defenses into exceptions, which supporters say would take the legal burden off medical providers.

The bill would allow for abortions for rape and incest only before six weeks gestation. It also would allow for treatment of ectopic pregnancies, a dangerous, nonviable scenario in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus.

Physicians last week told the Senate panel of devastating pregnancy complications, and requested amendments they'd like to see for broader exceptions.

North Dakota Catholic Conference Executive Director and General Counsel Christopher Dodson presented the amendments to the Senate panel.

The amended bill took out language that doctors urged be removed, related to "substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function" in the definition of a medical emergency. The Senate panel removed "and irreversible," a change lauded by North Dakota Medical Association Executive Director Courtney Koebele.

But the panel didn't extend the bill's limit on six weeks gestation for abortions in cases of rape and incest, as physicians had requested. Many women don't know they're pregnant at that point in time.

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Last week, Myrdal said that request and one for an exception for abortions for lethal fetal anomalies "are nonnegotiable for me as the sponsor of the bill."

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