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Patrick Springer, Published March 18 2013

North Dakota looks at more abortion restrictions

FARGO – Maternal health will be compromised. Complete in vitro fertilization services will no longer be offered in the state. Women’s patient-physician relationships will be breached.

Those are among the reasons a raft of anti-abortion bills moving through the North Dakota Legislature, including a pair of so-called “personhood bills,” should be rejected, doctors said Monday at a news conference in Fargo.

Some doctors have testified before legislative committees that they will leave the state if the anti-abortion bills pass, and 26 medical students wrote a letter predicting that it would become more difficult to recruit physicians to the state.

Also, in what member physicians say is a historic stance, the North Dakota Medical Association has come out in opposition of the two “personhood” bills, Senate Bill 2303 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 4009. Both measures have passed the Senate and await action by the House.

Although abortion is the intended target of the bills, the consequences would be far broader, physicians said.

“These bills will stop the practice of in vitro fertilization in this state,” said Dr. Stephanie Dahl, an obstetrician-gynecologist and reproductive medicine specialist in Fargo.

Although certain preparatory services still would be available, patients would have to travel to Sioux Falls, S.D., or Minneapolis for the actual treatments, which require multiple sonograms and eight to 12 visits over a period of six weeks, she said.

Dr. Steffen Christensen, who established the in vitro fertilization clinic in Fargo 19 years ago, also said the service to help couples have children would be shut down.

“The concern is this is criminal negligence if anything should happen to an embryo,” he said.

Although the bill includes an exemption for emergency procedures to treat ectopic pregnancies, treatment often begins at an early stage.

If the bills become law, they would “embroil us in legal lawsuits over the next couple of years,” Christensen said.

Last year the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a “personhood” law as unconstitutional, a ruling the U.S. Supreme Court let stand. Opponents of the North Dakota “personhood” laws argue that the state would fight a costly and losing legal battle.

The bills’ impact is broader even than maternal or reproductive health, Dahl said, adding that they could interfere with advanced directives, such as a “living will,” and end-of-life care and organ donation.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 4009, a proposed amendment to the state constitution which would go before voters if signed into law, requires protection of life at any stage. It provides no exceptions to allow abortions for victims of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother.

Senate Bill 2303 defines “personhood” as it relates to certain medical procedures. Opponents argue it would cause “confusion and fear of litigation and jail time among health care providers.”

Dr. Ted Kleiman, a retired Fargo physician, did his medical training before a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortions legal. Women were dying of bacterial infections from “back alley” abortions, he said.

“It is one of the worst, ugliest deaths,” Kleiman said, saying passage of the laws would plunge North Dakota back into “the stone age of medicine.”

“This legislation needs to be overturned,” he said, adding it has “profound consequences.”

A letter signed by a dozen Fargo physicians and other providers urged legislators to reject the bills, saying they would intrude on the “physician-patient relationship and its essential privacy.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522