North Dakota Judge Overturns Super-Strict Abortion Law, But Another One May Be On Its Way

Wednesday saw one of the worst reproductive-rights laws in the United States struck down: A federal judge overturned a North Dakota ban on abortions performed after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Critics of the law say it's the most stringent abortion restriction in the U.S.: It not only chips further away at the 24-week precedent set by Roe v. Wade, but also severely limits the options for women who discover they're pregnant after the sixth week.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland called the fetal heartbeat law "invalid and unconstitutional." He cited the decision of Roe in his ruling, adding that "no state may deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at a point prior to viability."

This is not the first time Hovland has opposed the law. The federal judge temporarily blocked the measure last July from going into effect, several months after it was signed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple. The fetal heartbeat ban was one of four anti-abortion measures that the North Dakota governor signed last year; the others included an admitting privileges requirement for all abortion-clinic doctors, a ban on sex-selective abortions and a restriction on terminating pregnancies because of genetic defects.

Nancy Northrup, president and CEO with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said today in a statement that law would "send the women of [North Dakota] back to the dark days before Roe v. Wade":

Women in North Dakota already face innumerable obstacles to safely and legally ending a pregnancy — and this law would have completely eliminated all safe or legal options for hundreds of miles in every direction.

Since 2001, North Dakota has only one abortion clinic — the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo. Like Mississippi's last remaining abortion clinic, Red River has been in the crosshairs of both anti-abortion legislation and extremist activists over the last several years. The fetal heartbeat law, as well as the admitting privileges requirement, threatened to shutter the clinic for good.

The clinic reported that it performed 1,125 abortions in 2013, a 15 percent decline from 2012 and the lowest number of procedures in the last decade. Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker said the strict abortion laws are responsible for the decline, because they've led women to believe that abortion is illegal in the state.

Even though this fetal heartbeat law has been shot down, another one may be on its way. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the Alabama House passed a similar fetal heartbeat bill in March. It's currently awaiting a vote in the Senate.