BISMARCK, N.D. — A measure that would outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed premise that a fetus can by then feel pain was sent to the North Dakota governor Friday.
The North Dakota Legislature is taking a multi-pronged approach this session in trying to make North Dakota the most restrictive state in the nation in which to get the procedure, with Gov. Jack Dalrymple already signing three measures into law, including one that bans abortions when a heartbeat can be detected – as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and before some women even know they're pregnant.
Lawmakers' intent is to challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
The so-called "fetal pain" bill passed the House on Friday with a 60-32 vote. The bill, which was approved by the Senate 30-17 in February, now goes to the Republican governor, who has hinted he will sign it.
Republican state Sen. Joe Miller, the bill's primary sponsor, said the measure was "a different precedent and a different strategy" than other anti-abortion measures introduced this session.
"The fetal heartbeat bill is what it is and this is what it is," said Miller, a farmer from Park River in eastern North Dakota. "We all came forward with different ideas."
Rep. Gail Mooney, D-Cummings, opposed the measure and said the state has already made its point that it's anti-abortion with the other measures passed this session.
"The question needs to be asked: How many more do we need?" she said.
In addition to the fetal heartbeat measure, Dalrymple also signed a measure that bans abortions because a fetus has genetic defects such as Down syndrome and one requiring a doctor who performs abortions to be a physician with hospital-admitting privileges. All of the measures would take effect Aug. 1, and are fueled in part by an attempt to close the state's sole abortion clinic in Fargo.
State lawmakers also moved last month to outlaw abortion in the state by passing a resolution defining life as starting at conception, essentially banning abortion in the state. The measure is likely to come before voters in November 2014.
Abortion rights advocates say the laws are unconstitutional and have promised a legal fight that they say will be long, costly and unwinnable for the state.
Rep. Peter Silbernagel, R-Casselton, said Friday the "fetal pain" bill was worthwhile because it "recognizes unborn children do feel pain."
But Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, said that is disputed by the scientific community and called it a pointless piece of legislation.
"A doctor cannot definitively determine post-fertilization age," she said. "So we're basing this on a guess."
House Republican majority leader Al Carlson of Fargo said lawmakers introduced the legislation at the urging of their constituents.
"This is important to a lot of people and it irritates a lot of people," Carlson said.
Democratic Sen. Mac Schneider, the Senate's minority leader and a Grand Forks attorney, said the spate of abortion bills this session has meant other important issues have taken a back seat.
"I believe it has taken a lot of the oxygen out of the room when it comes to other challenges we are facing this session," Schneider said. "This is another bill that will be litigated – that much we know."
Lawmakers have started building a war chest to defend against potential lawsuits. The Senate has unanimously supported a request by state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for a $400,000 budget increase.
At least 10 states have passed bills banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on the premise that a fetus can feel pain at that stage, but research is split on the theory.
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