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updated: 3/15/2013 4:09 PM

North Dakota passes earliest abortion limit

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  • Associated Press/Jan. 31, 2013Rep. Bette Grande testifies before the House Human Services Committee in Bismarck, N.D. Grande, a Republican from Fargo, introduced abortion bills that will now go to the governor.

      Associated Press/Jan. 31, 2013Rep. Bette Grande testifies before the House Human Services Committee in Bismarck, N.D. Grande, a Republican from Fargo, introduced abortion bills that will now go to the governor.

By Esm E. Deprez\Bloomberg News

Lawmakers in North Dakota voted Friday to ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, the narrowest window of any state, and to become the first to bar terminations sought because of genetic abnormalities.

The Republican-led state Senate approved the measures Friday in Bismarck. They now go to Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple for his signature. State Rep. Bette Grande of Fargo, who co-sponsored the bills, said she expects him to sign them.

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House Bill 1456 would make it a felony for a doctor to perform a nonemergency abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as five or six weeks. House Bill 1305 would prohibit abortions sought because a fetus has been or could be diagnosed with any genetically inherited defect, disease or disorder without exception for those that are fatal.

"The heartbeat is society's marker for life," Grande, a Republican, said by telephone from Fargo.

The governor's approval of the restrictions would make North Dakota the latest state to test how far lawmakers can go in limiting when and how women can terminate pregnancies. It would also set a record.

Until last week, lawmakers had mostly sought to ban abortions only after the 20th week of pregnancy, around the time women commonly receive ultrasound examinations to screen for fetal anomalies. Arkansas legislators broke that mold March 6 when they overrode Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto to pass a near-ban from the 12th week of pregnancy onward.

North Dakota's measure would effectively set an earlier limit than the Arkansas law, which the American Civil Liberties Union called the most restrictive since Guam tried to ban abortions in 1990. Stephanie Toti, senior staff attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, said the Arkansas statute had no chance of withstanding a court test because it so clearly contravenes legal precedent.

Grande, in Fargo, said she'd be happy if her legislation led to a challenge of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. That 1973 ruling granted women the right to terminate a pregnancy up to fetal viability, generally recognized to be around 24 weeks.

At six weeks, the fetus is typically smaller in size than a dime, according to the Mayo Clinic, and is before many women know they're pregnant. The time-limit bill makes an exception in cases where a medical emergency necessitates an abortion.

The genetic abnormality ban would make North Dakota the first with such a law, said Elizabeth Nash, states issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health researcher in New York. The law would also bar abortions sought because of fetal gender, which Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Arizona already prohibit, Nash said.

Lawmakers in North Dakota are also weighing a so-called personhood bill that would declare that life begins at conception. In addition to banning all abortions, the measure might bar some forms of contraception and in-vitro fertilization.

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