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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published February 18 2013

ND Senate votes to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy

BISMARCK — North Dakota's Senate approved two anti-abortion bills on Monday that would ban the destruction of human embryos and outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed premise that at that point a fetus can feel pain.

Senators voted 30-17 to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The measure is a challenge to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.

The embryo measure narrowly passed 24-23, with the full Senate present. The measure's aim is to prohibit the intentional destruction of embryos and to regulate in-vitro fertilization, in which a woman's egg is fertilized outside her body. The bill defines a human being as "an individual member of the species homo sapiens at every stage of development."

The measure also requires the state to expand Medicaid coverage to all pregnant women, which budget analysts estimate could cost taxpayers up to $9 million annually. Separate from the medical costs, the state Attorney General's office estimates the state could spend $60,000 in litigation costs defending the measure.

Neither bill makes exceptions for rape or incest. The measures now move to the House.

Critics of the measures say the intent is to shutter the state's sole abortion provider, the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo. Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, said the clinic performs no abortions past 16 weeks of pregnancy, so the bill banning abortions after 20 weeks was unneeded.

Nelson also questioned the idea that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, saying research shows that it's more likely at 29 to 30 weeks.

"I, quite frankly, don't like abortion," Nelson said. But she told fellow lawmakers that abortion is a decision that should be made between a woman and her doctor, "not us."

Republican Sen. Spencer Berry, a physician from Fargo and a sponsor of the bill, said the abortion clinic's records show that four abortions were performed beyond 16 weeks at the clinic in 2011, the most recent data available. Berry said research has found that a fetus can feel pain by 20 weeks of pregnancy.

"There is a preponderance of evidence, in fact, that this may be earlier than 20 weeks," Berry said.

It's already illegal in North Dakota to damage embryos by experimentation. Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, one of the sponsors of the bill that would ban the intentional destruction of embryos, told The Associated Press that the measure approved Monday would allow embryos implanted in another woman's body, frozen or put up for adoption.

Sitte told fellow senators that there are 110,000 people in North Dakota who are infertile.

"Human embryos and human beings," she said.

The measures are among several Republican-backed bills this session aimed at sending a statement that the state is anti-abortion.

The North Dakota House this month also passed a bill that would ban doctors from performing an abortion if a fetal heartbeat were detected. The House also has passed a bill would prevent women from having abortions based on gender selection or a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome.

The state Senate also has passed bills aimed at strengthening North Dakota already-strict abortion laws. One of the measures would require a doctor who performs abortions to be a physician with hospital-admitting privileges.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.