N.D. close to ban on abortion at 6 weeks

State Senate passes two restrictive new measures in an hour

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BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota moved closer Friday to adopting what would be the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, with lawmakers sending the Republican governor measures that could set the state up for a costly legal battle over the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized the procedure.

The North Dakota Senate overwhelmingly approved two anti-abortion bills Friday, one banning abortions as early as six weeks -- when a fetal heartbeat can be detected -- into a pregnancy and another prohibiting women from having the procedure because a fetus has a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome, or for sex selection. North Dakota would be the first state in the U.S. to adopt such laws.

Supporters said their goal is to challenge the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion up until a fetus is considered viable, usually at 22 to 24 weeks, though anti-abortion activists elsewhere have expressed concern about the strategy.

"It's a good day for babies," said Rep. Bette Grande, a Republican from Fargo who introduced both bills. The state's only abortion clinic is in Fargo, and abortion-rights advocates say the measures are meant to shut it down.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple hasn't said anything to indicate he would veto the measures, and the bills have enough support in each chamber for the Legislature to override him.

Debate Friday was brief, with the Senate taking about an hour to pass both measures. No one spoke against the so-called fetal heartbeat bill, which the Senate took up immediately after passing the genetic abnormalities bill. The votes were largely on party lines, with Republicans supporting the measures and Democrats opposing them.

Opponents, who have promised legal challenges to both measures if they become law, urged Dalrymple to veto the bills. North Dakota is one of several states with Republican-controlled Legislatures and GOP governors that is looking at abortion restrictions. But the state is better positioned than most for a long court fight: It has budget surplus nearing $2 billion thanks to new-found oil wealth.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the measures "extreme," saying they would make North Dakota "the first state in the nation to ban most abortions."

"In America, no woman, no matter where she lives, should be denied the ability to make this deeply personal decision," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said in a statement.

North Dakota's measure doesn't specify how a fetal heartbeat would be detected. Doctors performing an abortion after a heartbeat is detected could face a felony charge punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Women having an abortion would not face charges.

Grande told lawmakers that fears about a legal challenge shouldn't prevent them from approving the North Dakota measure. "Whether this is challenged in court is entirely up to the abortion industry," she said. "Given the lucrative nature of abortion, it is likely that any statute that reduces the number of customers will be challenged by the industry."

During the Senate debate, one senator who had spoken out against the genetic abnormalities bill left the chamber in protest. The move forced the Senate to briefly halt debate, because the chambers rules require senators to be formally excused. The Senate was able to move forward with proceedings on the bill by passing a motion to excuse the senator.

"It was absolutely a silent protest," Sen. Connie Triplett said after the vote. "North Dakota will have a harder time recruiting and retaining doctors because doctors will not want to be arrested for advising women on abortion issues."