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N.D. Governor Signs Nation's Toughest Abortion Measure


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

North Dakota now has the toughest abortion laws in the nation. That's after the state's governor, Jack Dalrymple, signed three bills into law today. One makes it a crime to perform abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected.

As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, that would effectively ban nearly all abortions in the state and sets up a likely court challenge.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: A fetal heartbeat is present at about six weeks in pregnancy, and the North Dakota law bans all abortions at that point, a point when many women don't know they are pregnant and may not have had a chance to make a decision about abortion. Margaret Sitte is a state senator who helped pass the new set of laws.

STATE SENATOR MARGARET SITTE: We're absolutely thrilled that the governor signed the bills. We expected it all along, but it's nice to have it happen.

LOHR: When Governor Dalrymple signed the bills, he said in a statement that he recognizes there will be a legal battle over the heartbeat law. But he called it a legitimate attempt by the legislature to discover the boundaries of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion 40 years ago. The court said states can't enact abortion restrictions until after a fetus can survive outside the womb. But the governor said the courts have never considered this precise law.

Dalrymple also signed a bill to ban abortions on the basis of gender or because of a fetal abnormality, for example, Down syndrome. The third bill requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Abortion rights activists, including Cecile Richards with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, say the laws are the most egregious and far-reaching in the country.

CECILE RICHARDS: This is a bill that is unconstitutional, but it is outrageous that politicians would go after women in this way. And I think it's very discouraging to think that somehow, women's rights in this country are now dependent on their ZIP code.

LOHR: Richards and others who support abortion rights say North Dakota is trying to close its single remaining clinic. About 25 abortions are performed there each week. This isn't the only state enacting this kind of legislation this year. Arkansas passed a 12-week abortion ban earlier this month. Four more states are considering six-week bans. Still, others are debating prohibiting abortions at 20 weeks. Elissa Berger is with the ACLU.

ELISSA BERGER: This is a troubling trend where politicians are pushing bills that take away personal, private decision-making that ban abortion. There has been outrage over the Arkansas bill and now the North Dakota law. There will continue to be outrage. People will not stand for politicians interfering in personal, private decisions.

LOHR: The laws are set to go into effect in August, but legal challenges are on the way. Still, abortion opponents, including state Senator Margaret Sitte, say it's important for North Dakota to take a stand.

SITTE: There is room for states' rights, and so that's why we're just real excited to see North Dakota leading the nation and protecting the right to life of all of the unborn.

LOHR: The governor also urged lawmakers to provide money for a litigation fund before they adjourn. Political science professor at the University of North Dakota Mark Jendrysek says this Midwestern state is a good place for those opposed to abortion to experiment with new laws.

MARK JENDRYSEK: You've got a state which is older. You've got a state which is, you know, inherently conservative, has been, you know, since its foundation, I would argue. And so I think it's a good place to test these things out, especially when you have a, you know, Republican supermajority in the legislature that can, you know, pass these things without any real resistance from the opposition.

LOHR: And North Dakota voters will also decide on a constitutional amendment that would recognize life at any stage of development. That will be on the ballot in 2014. Kathy Lohr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.