North Dakota’s GOP-led Legislature mulls abortion bills

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s Republican-led Legislature reopened the abortion debate Monday following a six-year pause despite critics saying the state is setting itself up for another round of expensive legal fights over legislation they describe as misleading and unconstitutional.

In back-to-back, standing-room-only hearings, a House committee took testimony on legislation that would ban a commonly used second-trimester abortion procedure. Another bill would require abortion providers to inform women undergoing drug-induced abortions that if they changed their minds, they could still have a live birth — a claim critics argue isn’t supported by medical evidence.

Similar fights are expected in several states over abortion rights this year. But in North Dakota, home to only one abortion clinic, the legislation marks a return to the debate for the oil-rich state, which had the money to defend some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws in 2013 when other conservative states didn’t. One of those laws sought to ban abortions when a fetal heartbeat could be detected, but it was later ruled unconstitutional.

Republican Rep. Daniel Johnston, sponsor of the so-called abortion “reversal” bill, told the committee the measure does not hamper access to abortion services and ensures that abortion providers make “all information available” on the procedure. He said: “Women have a right to know that they can choose to change their mind.”

“There is no credible, medically accepted evidence that a medication abortion can be reversed,” said Tammi Kromenaker, director of the state’s lone abortion clinic, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo. “A vote for (the bill) is a vote to lie to North Dakota woman.”

Kromenaker has said up to 40 percent of the 1,150 abortions the clinic performs each year are medicine abortions, which are done by using a combination of two drugs. Similar legislation has been approved in Idaho , Utah, South Dakota and Arkansas.

The second North Dakota measure considered Monday would ban the dilation and evacuation method of abortion, which opponents call “human dismemberment abortion.” The bill would make it a felony to perform such a procedure, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Abortion-rights groups argue that banning the procedure is unconstitutional because it interferes with private medical decisions.

Republican Rep. Luke Simons called the abortion method “barbaric” and got graphic in describing the procedure, which can involve a doctor using instruments like clamps, scissors and forceps.

Laws banning the procedure are on the books in Mississippi and West Virginia, while Ohio’s new law will take effect in March, said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research organization.

Similar laws are on hold because of legal challenges in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, Nash said.

Last month, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes North Dakota, heard oral arguments over a judge’s decision to block Arkansas from enforcing its law. Kromenaker said her clinic’s lawyers would wait for a decision in that case before deciding on possible legal challenges to North Dakota’s legislation.

The House Human Services Committee took no action on the measures Monday. The committee will make recommendations on the bills before they move to the full House.

Only two abortion-restricting measures have gone into effect in North Dakota since 2011. One requires a doctor who performs abortions to be a physician with hospital-admitting privileges, and doctors at the Fargo clinic obtained such privileges at a local hospital.

The other law prohibits women from having an abortion if they’re seeking the procedure because the fetus has a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome; Kromenaker’s clinic said it didn’t challenge the measure because such procedures are never performed.