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Patrick Springer, Published November 17 2010

Fargo women's clinic abortion doctor won’t be charged

The Cass County state’s attorney has declined to bring criminal charges against a doctor at the Red River Women’s Clinic who performed abortions with a temporarily expired state medical license.

Birch Burdick, in a memo sent Tuesday to Fargo police investigators, concluded that Dr. Lori Thorndike had not posed any risk to patients or flouted the law during the period her North Dakota license had lapsed.

The women’s clinic, in downtown Fargo, is North Dakota’s only abortion clinic and has been the subject of scrutiny by anti-abortion activists.

Under North Dakota law, abortions must be performed by a licensed physician. Violations in the abortion statute are subject to possible misdemeanor or felony criminal penalties.

Thorndike, who is based in Colorado and periodically practices at the women’s clinic in Fargo, “performed a number of abortions” there on Sept. 30, three months after her North Dakota medical license expired on June 30.

“I have no information to suggest she has violated ND” – North Dakota – “requirements other than to belatedly renew her ND medical registration, which appears to have been an administrative oversight,” Burdick wrote.

Thorndike’s medical licenses in Colorado, her resident state, and South Dakota, remained active, and she has no disciplinary marks on her record, according to investigators.

Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo criticized the decision not to prosecute.

“The North Dakota Legislature enacted laws specifically designed to protect women seeking abortions, including those that expressly require a properly licensed physician,” he said in a statement, adding that no civil law will “transform the evil of abortion into a morally acceptable act.”

A spokeswoman for Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group based in Wichita, Kan., said North Dakota officials were giving the case a “wink and a nod.”

“There is obviously some kind of monkey business at work in North Dakota,” Cheryl Sullenger of Operation Rescue said. “In this case, no one is saying that Thorndike did not break the law. They simply refuse to enforce the laws that were broken.”

In reaching his decision, Burdick noted that the penalty for a brain surgeon or transplant surgeon operating with a lapsed license was subject to a possible misdemeanor penalty of up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

However, North Dakota law provides for a felony criminal penalty for performing an abortion without a license, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Burdick could find no instance when a North Dakota doctor faced a criminal prosecution for an expired license.

“It’s my job to apply the law to the facts,” Burdick said. He concluded it would not be appropriate to add criminal sanctions beyond any licensing penalties state medical officials might impose for the lapsed license.

The felony penalty, Burdick added, apparently is to discourage a “medically untrained person from performing abortions in a back alley, so to speak.”

Tammi Kromenaker, director of the Red River Women’s Clinic, was relieved by the decision not to prosecute.

“There was no willful flouting of the law by either Dr. Thorndike or Red River Women’s Clinic,” she said. “We have put systems into place to ensure that all licensed personnel at the clinic are current and stay current so that this situation does not repeat itself.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522