Saved by a heartbeat

Abortion | Daniel James Devine

Saved by a heartbeat

Rep. Bette Grande, a Republican who introduced both pro-life bills, testifies before the House Human Services Committee in Bismarck, N.D.
Associated Press/Photo by James MacPherson

With little debate, the North Dakota Senate passed the strictest abortion ban in the nation Friday. The legislation, which now awaits Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s signature, would outlaw most abortions performed after the heartbeat of the developing baby can be detected. Using trans-vaginal ultrasound technology, heartbeats can be detected from as early as 6 weeks of gestation.

That makes the North Dakota measure even more stringent than a recent ban in Arkansas. Legislators in that state overrode their governor's veto March 6 to outlaw abortion after 12 weeks of gestation, or as soon as the baby's heartbeat can be detected using noninvasive technology such as an abdominal ultrasound. Currently, the ban in Arkansas is the strictest on the books, although it is not scheduled to take effect for several months.

Abortion proponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights, have promised to fight the Arkansas law in court. Many legal experts—including some in the pro-life camp—believe the new laws are unlikely to withstand a judicial challenge. Roe v. Wade only permitted state abortion restrictions after viability, the point at which the baby can survive outside the womb with medical assistance, generally considered to be about 23 or 24 weeks.

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On March 6, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional a ban in Idaho that prohibits abortion after 20 weeks. The ruling was the first instance of a judge striking down a fetal pain law. Ten states, including Arkansas most recently, have passed fetal pain laws since 2010, based on medical evidence that a baby can feel pain at around 20 weeks of gestation.

The fetal pain laws are part of a pro-life strategy to reduce abortions state by state, and have contributed to a record surge of pro-life legislation during the past two years. Heartbeat laws are a newer strategy: Besides those in North Dakota and Arkansas, legislators in Ohio and Kansas are considering heartbeat bills.

North Dakota lawmakers also approved legislation on Friday that would be the first in the nation to prohibit abortions performed because of genetic conditions, such as cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome. It too awaits the governor's signature.

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