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Dave Roepke, Published August 13 2009

Judge clarifies new North Dakota abortion law

A new state law doesn’t require Fargo’s Red River Women’s Clinic, the only abortion provider in North Dakota, to offer women a chance to hear the fetal heartbeat at the clinic before getting an abortion, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The change to state abortion law effective Aug. 1 only mandates that clinics provide information about where a pregnant woman can receive such a service, Judge Douglas Herman of the East Central Judicial District said in an opinion.

Herman decided to clarify the law instead of issuing an injunction to suspend it, as the clinic had requested in a July 30 hearing. The state argued in the hearing for the interpretation that Herman reached.

“It should allow the Clinic to continue in business much as it has in the past, only requiring that it provide information about fetal heart tone auscultation services, if available elsewhere,” Herman wrote in the opinion.

The clinic’s attorney said in a news release that the ruling removes worries that the staff at Red River would have to risk prosecution under the law or stop performing abortions.

“We are pleased that the court has provided clarity where there was none and removed the severe threat to women’s access to abortion that the unclear language of the law imposed,” said Suzanne Stolz, staff attorney for the U.S. Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The equipment the clinic would have had to buy to allow the heartbeat to be heard would have cost as much as $28,000, according to the lawsuit filed in Clay County District Court.

Herman rejected the clinic’s argument that the law would amount to the “undue burden” outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

He noted that five other states – Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Georgia and Mississippi – have laws regarding fetal heart tones and none have been overturned by a court.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535