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Supreme Court Rejects North Dakota's Bid To Save Strict Abortion Law

The "fetal heartbeat" law — a North Dakota ban on many abortions that was the toughest in the nation when it was enacted — has been blocked permanently, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a lower court's ruling that overturned the law.

The measure banned abortions as soon as a heartbeat is detected in the fetus — as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

NPRs Jennifer Ludden reports:

"North Dakota's 2013 law would have banned abortions before many women even realize they're pregnant. Lower court judges blocked it, saying the Supreme Court has made clear that abortions are allowed until a fetus is viable — around 23 or 24 weeks. But some of those judges also suggested the high court reconsider the concept of viability, given medical advances.

"North Dakota had argued viability begins at conception, since embryos can be kept alive outside the womb, in a lab. The high court did not go there. Last week, it also rejected Arkansas' effort to ban abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy."

Reacting to the Supreme Court's ruling, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said he knew the bid to revive the law was a long shot, with the Bismarck Tribune quoting him saying, "This is the end of what we can do."

The Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, the sole abortion provider in North Dakota, challenged the measure shortly after the Legislature approved it. Their suit had the backing of the Center for Reproductive Rights, whose president and CEO, Nancy Northup, said Monday, "Whether in North Dakota, Arkansas, or Texas, politicians simply cannot rob women of their constitutional rights."

In November, the Supreme Court said it would hear a challenge to "a 2013 Texas law that has already forced the closure of more than half of the state's 40 clinics that perform abortions," as Laura Wagner reported for the Two-Way. That came months after a federal appeals court blocked Arkansas' ban on abortion after 12 weeks of gestation.

When U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland rejected North Dakota's justification for the law, he cited the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, saying "no state may deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at a point prior to viability."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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