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North Dakota abortion ban ruled unconstitutional

A federal judge has struck down North Dakota's strict abortion ban, one of the nation's harshest.
Abortion-rights advocates demonstrate during a rally outside a civic center in Fargo, N.D.
Abortion-rights advocates demonstrate during a rally outside a civic center in Fargo, N.D., on March 25, 2013.

A federal judge has struck down one of the strictest abortion laws in the country, ruling that a North Dakota ban on abortions after as early as six weeks is unconstitutional.

In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland wrote of the state's push to end abortions after a month and a half, "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 law, which would have prohibited abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, passed last year and was immediately challenged. The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed suit on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic, the only abortion provider in North Dakota. A judge blocked the law from going into effect in July of last year.

In a statement, Nancy Northup, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, called Wednesday's decision a major victory for women throughout the Midwest.

"The court was correct to call this law exactly what it is: a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women," Northup said in a statement. "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.”

The ban's sponsor, state Republican Rep. Bette Grande, said via email that the ruling was "expected because the Supreme Court has not directly examined question of the baby's growth and development in the womb for 40 years," adding, "North Dakota has the duty and obligation to protect life in the womb – the question before the Court is when does that duty to protect life take precedence?"

Women travel from South Dakota and Minnesota to receive reproductive care at the Red River Women’s Clinic, which is based in Fargo, N.D. Tammi Kroemenaker, the clinic's director, told msnbc the decision came as a relief, but that the court battle had not stopped the clinic from providing services. "We were seeing patients today just like we were when the governor signed the bill into law last year. We will continue to provide services in our state, because women still need those services," Kroemenaker said. "Bans like this do nothing to prevent unintended pregnancies."

The state attorney general has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision to the 8th circuit. Arkansas said last week that it will appeal a ruling that struck down a ban on abortions after 12 weeks to the same circuit.

The ban was one of several bills passed by the North Dakota legislature last year restricting abortion care. The CRR settled a suit over the state’s law requiring abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals after a local hospital granted them to the Red River Women’s Clinic. Clinics in Texas have already shuttered because they were unable to get such priviliges, and clinics in other Southern states are also in danger of closing because of similar admitting privileges laws.

The battle over abortion rights in North Dakota is not over, though. The North Dakota Supreme Court is reviewing a law that would functionally end medication abortion, which could further burden women who live in rural areas many miles from comprehensive reproductive care.

"We serve a huge swath of the Midwest," Kroemenaker told msnbc. "If a ban were to be successful, it would leave a huge hole for many women where getting to other places is beyond their means."

The state legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment giving personhood rights to embryos last year. The amendment would ban all abortion outright in North Dakota and could end reproductive services like in vitro fertilization. It was extreme enough to inspire some Republican legislators to condemn it at a rally against the measure shortly after it passed. Voters will decide whether to reject the measure in November.