The abortion wars in America have been given a new and startling blast of oxygen by the passage in North Dakota of a measure banning terminations in the state for women carrying a foetus with a “detectable heartbeat” – widely taken to mean around six weeks from conception.
Critics have pointed out that at this stage many women do not even realise they are pregnant.
The law was one of three passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law on Tuesday by Governor Jack Dalrymple, also a Republican. Combined, they ensure that North Dakota will stand as the state with the toughest restrictions on abortions in the whole of America.
While the six-week law is due to come into effect on 1 August, its implementation is likely to be stalled, if not stifled entirely, by the courts. Legal experts saw it as the most dramatic challenge yet to the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court ‘Roe vs Wade’ ruling, which legalised abortions in America until a foetus is considered potentially viable, usually 22 to 24 weeks.
Mr Dalrymple also signed into a law a measure that bans women from seeking abortions when genetic defects are detected. A third law requires that any doctor performing terminations at the state’s one and only abortion clinic, in Fargo, has so-called hospital-admitting privileges. This sets a standard that will make it harder for the clinic to remain in business.
“In the past it’s been, ‘We’re going to try and make it more difficult, more hoops, more obstacles for women to have to jump through,’ ” said Tammi Kromenaker, the director of Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo. “But this is specifically: ‘Let’s ban abortion. Let’s do it. Let’s challenge Roe vs Wade. Let’s end abortion in North Dakota.’ ”
The legislature also passed a ‘personhood’ resolution, which seeks to assert that a foetus is a human from the instant of conception and therefore is protected from that moment. It is likely to go to voters next year as a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution, which if adopted would effectively outlaw terminations entirely.
Already the moves by North Dakota have galvanised both sides in the legal struggle to defend – or overturn – Roe vs Wade, which, after decades on a slow simmer, is suddenly coming to a boil. The New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights vowed to challenge the new laws on behalf of Red River Clinic, which also saw a flood of cash donations from pro-choice supporters.
Governor Dalrymple meanwhile defended his decision to sign the new laws. “Although the likelihood of this measure surviving a court challenge remains in question, this bill is nevertheless a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe vs Wade,” he said in a statement.
Doctors can potentially detect a foetal heartbeat at six weeks by way of a transvaginal ultrasound. Arkansas last month passed a law banning abortions beyond 12 weeks which is when a heartbeat can be traced using abdominal ultrasound.