BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Senate was expected to vote Friday on a pair of bills that could make the state's abortion laws the most restrictive in the country.
One bill would ban most abortions if a fetal heartbeat was detected, something that could happen as early as six weeks into pregnancy depending on what type of method was used. A second bill would prevent women from having abortions based on gender selection or a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome.
Guttmacher Institute spokeswoman Elizabeth Nash said North Dakota would be the only state to ban abortions based on a genetic defect. Pennsylvania, Arizona and Oklahoma ban abortions based on gender selection, she said. The institute tracks abortion laws throughout the country.
The measures have already passed the North Dakota House, and approval by the Republican-controlled Senate would send them to Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
"It's too early to tell if it's something he can support," Dalrymple spokesman Jeff Zent said "These proposals can still be amended, and he needs to see the final product before he can support it."
Republicans have two-thirds control in both the North Dakota House and Senate, enough to potentially override a veto.
Abortion rights advocates say the North Dakota measures are an attempt to close the state's sole abortion clinic in Fargo. They also say the fetal heartbeat bill is a direct challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks, and its supporters should expect a costly legal fight if it becomes law.
But North Dakota, which has a state budget surplus nearing $2 billion thanks to new found oil wealth, is better positioned than most states to pay for a long court fight.
Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute, said the North Dakota bills are the latest in a "tidal wave of abortion restrictions" across the county. Last week, Arkansas lawmakers overrode Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto to pass a 12-week ban, prohibiting abortions from the point when a fetus' heartbeat can typically be detected using an abdominal ultrasound.
"We have seen efforts to ban abortion entirely and those attempts have failed," Nash said. "Now they're moving toward banning abortions as early as possible."
North Dakota's bill does not specify how a heartbeat would be detected, much like the original version of the Arkansas bill, which also would have banned the procedure as early as six weeks. But Arkansas lawmakers balked after opponents said detecting a heartbeat that early would have required a vaginal probe ultrasound and amended the bill to specify an abdominal ultrasound.
Under the North Dakota bill, doctors performing an abortion after a heartbeat was detected could be charged with a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Women having an abortion would not be charged under the measure.
Republican Rep. Bette Grande, an ardent anti-abortion legislator from Fargo, introduced both bills and said lawmakers should not vote against them because they fear looming litigation.
"Whether this is challenged in court is entirely up to the abortion industry," Grande said in testimony this week supporting the bills. "Given the lucrative nature of abortion it is likely that any statute that reduces the number of customers will be challenged by the industry."
The North Dakota House is expected to consider anti-abortion bills next week that have already passed the Senate. They include a measure that would require a doctor who performs abortions to have hospital-admitting privileges. Other bills would ban the destruction of human embryos and outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed premise that fetuses that old can feel pain.
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