North Dakota appeals after judge overturns law that bans abortions if fetal heartbeat detected

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By JAMES MacPHERSON, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota's attorney general said Wednesday the state was appealing a judge's ruling that overturned a state law banning abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

The law — one of strictest abortion statutes in the nation — was approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature last year, though it was quickly put on hold after North Dakota's lone abortion clinic filed a lawsuit in July. U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland followed up with a ruling last month, saying the law was "invalid and unconstitutional," and wouldn't withstand a court challenge.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Hovland's ruling was not unexpected and that lawmakers approved the law hoping "a higher court would revisit the issue." Stenehjem said his office filed its notice of appeal in U.S. District Court in Bismarck on Wednesday, with written arguments expected later with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. Oral arguments likely won't come until the fall.

"It seems prudent that an appellate court should have an opportunity to consider the issue rather than have one judge overturn the judgment of the Legislative Assembly," Stenehjem said in a statement.

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights is helping the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo fight the law. David Brown, one of the attorneys representing the clinic, said less restrictive abortion laws have been struck down by appellate courts since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.

North Dakota's law "is an extreme law that violates the principals laid down in Roe V. Wade," Brown said.

Fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — before some women even know they are pregnant.

The law was one of several anti-abortion measures approved by lawmakers and Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple last year that made North Dakota's abortion laws among the strictest in the nation.

Abortion rights advocates call the fetal heartbeat law the most restrictive in the country and an attempt to shutter the state's lone abortion clinic. But the governor has called the law "a legitimate attempt by a state Legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade."

Last year, lawmakers in oil-rich North Dakota allocated $400,000 that was requested by Stenehjem to defend against any lawsuits arising from the state's new abortion laws. Records obtained by the AP show that the state has spent $234,597 defending new abortion laws, including $154,749 on the fetal heartbeat measure.

The Fargo clinic, which performs about 1,200 abortions a year, is served by out-of-state physicians licensed to practice in North Dakota. The nearest abortion clinics are four hours south in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and four hours southeast in Minneapolis.

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