Last year, North Dakota's Republican-led legislature and governor signed into law what abortion rights advocates called the most restrictive law against abortion in the United States. The law, referred to as the fetal heartbeat law, called for the outlaw of abortions in which the fetus's heartbeat could be detected, limiting the deadline for abortions to as early as six weeks into the pregnancy. Today, a federal judge in North Dakota overturned the legislation, deeming the law "unconstitutional".
The law was first brought to court by the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, ND. The group believed that the purpose of the law was to push the abortion clinic out of business considering that nearly all abortions would have been outlawed under the legislation. If the legislation was allowed to stand, the closest abortion clinic to residents of North Dakota would have been some 250 miles away.
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) February 3, 2014
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland submitted an injunction against the law after its passage, stating, "The State of North Dakota has presented no evidence to justify the passage of this troubling law. The State has extended an invitation to an expensive court battle over a law restricting abortions that is a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women."
With his position stated a year prior to this particular court hearing, the defense knew their lot was already determined: "He fairly telegraphed it when he issued his preliminary injunction," stated Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Judge Hovland based his decision on the standing precedent established by the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, writing in his 25-page decision that, "The United States Supreme Court has spoken and has unequivocally said no state may deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at a point prior to viability. The controversy over a woman's right to choose to have an abortion will never end. The issue is undoubtedly one of the most divisive of social issues. The United States Supreme Court will eventually weigh in on this emotionally-fraught issue but, until that occurs, this Court is obligated to uphold existing Supreme Court precedent."
Under Roe v. Wade, the viability of a fetus during pregnancy comes anywhere from the 22-24 week mark, much later than the six week bright-line established by the North Dakota law.
Nancy Northrup, CEO and president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, championed Hovland's decision:
"The court was correct to call this law exactly what it is: a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women. But women should not be forced to go to court, year after year in state after state, to protect their constitutional rights. We hope today's decision, along with the long line of decisions striking down these attempts to choke off access to safe and legal abortion services in the U.S., sends a strong message to politicians across the country that our rights cannot be legislated away."
Included in that long line of decisions striking down anti-abortion laws are Arizona's law seeking a 20-week abortion ban which the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of and Arkansas's 12-week abortion law.
Despite the overturning of the legislation, the Attorney General of North Dakota may appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States: "There are those who believed that this was a challenge that could go to the Supreme Court. Whether or not that's likely is something we need to confer about."
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