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North Dakota Passes Earliest U.S. Abortion Limit

North Dakota State Representative Bette Grande, a Republican representing Fargo, North Dakota, introduced the fetal heartbeat bill. Photographer: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call Photos via Getty Images
North Dakota State Representative Bette Grande, a Republican representing Fargo, North Dakota, introduced the fetal heartbeat bill. Photographer: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call Photos via Getty Images

March 15 (Bloomberg) -- North Dakota lawmakers voted to ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, the narrowest window of any U.S. state, and to become the first to bar terminations sought because of genetic abnormalities.

The Republican-led state Senate approved the measures today in Bismarck. They now go to Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple for his signature. Abortion-rights supporters decried the bills as extreme, dangerous and unconstitutional and urged a veto.

House Bill 1456 would make it a felony for a doctor to perform a nonemergency abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as five or six weeks. It passed 26-17. House Bill 1305 would prohibit abortions sought because a fetus has been or could be diagnosed with any genetically inherited defect, disease or disorder without exception for those that are fatal. It passed 28-15.

“We all know the significance of a heartbeat,” Senator Spencer Berry, a Fargo Republican and a doctor, said as he introduced the bill for floor debate. “It is the universally accepted biological proof of life.”

State Representative Bette Grande of Fargo, who co-sponsored the bills, said she expects Dalrymple to sign them. The governor’s signature would make North Dakota the latest state to test how far legislators can go in limiting when and how women can terminate pregnancies. It would also set a record.

Arkansas Precedent

Until last week, lawmakers had mostly sought to ban abortions only after the 20th week of pregnancy, around the time women commonly receive ultrasound examinations to screen for fetal anomalies. Arkansas legislators broke that mold March 6 when they overrode Democratic Governor Mike Beebe’s veto to pass a near-ban from the 12th week of pregnancy onward.

At six weeks, the fetus is typically smaller in size than a dime, according to the Mayo Clinic, and is before many women know they’re pregnant. North Dakota’s time-limit bill makes an exception when a medical emergency necessitates an abortion.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, which is challenging in court a related law on behalf of the state’s sole abortion clinic, said the heartbeat ban wouldn’t withstand a court test because it contravenes legal precedent.

‘Frontal Assault’

“The passage of this law is nothing short of a frontal assault on the U.S. Constitution, 40 years of Supreme Court precedent, and the health and fundamental rights of women,” Nancy Northup, president and chief executive officer of the New York-based center, said in a statement. “This will not stand.”

“North Dakota politicians are now leading what appears to be a nationwide competition among anti-choice extremists to see who can do the most to strip women of their dignity and autonomy and endanger their lives,” Northrup said.

Women obtained 1,247 abortions in North Dakota in 2011, according to the state health department. Most, 87 percent, weren’t married and 57 percent already had at least one child.

Grande, in Fargo, said she’d be happy if her legislation led to a challenge of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. That 1973 ruling granted women the right to terminate a pregnancy until a fetus reaches viability, generally recognized to be around 24 weeks.

Personhood Bill

The genetic abnormality ban would make North Dakota the first with such a law, said Elizabeth Nash, states issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health researcher in New York. The law would also bar abortions sought because of fetal gender, which Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Arizona already prohibit, Nash said.

State Senator John M. Warner, a Democrat from Ryder, said his daughter terminated a pregnancy about eight years ago in consultation with her priest after the fetus’s brain was discovered to be growing outside of its cranium. Doctors had told her it would die within minutes of delivery, Warner said.

He said he couldn’t think of “anything more cruel” than to force a woman to carry a doomed pregnancy to delivery, only to then watch the baby die.

The sex-selection ban was unnecessary because no one has ever sought an abortion in the state based on fetal gender, said state Senator Carolyn C. Nelson, a Fargo Democrat.

No senator spoke against the heartbeat bill during the floor debate.

Lawmakers in North Dakota are also weighing a so-called personhood bill that would declare that life begins at conception. In addition to banning all abortions, the measure might bar some forms of contraception and in-vitro fertilization.

To contact the reporter on this story: Esmé E. Deprez in New York at;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at

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