FARGO, North Dakota — Abortion rights activists on Wednesday filed the first of what they expect will be several legal challenges to laws recently approved in North Dakota that would make that state the most restrictive in the country for women to terminate their pregnancies.
The state's lone abortion clinic, backed by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, said it filed a lawsuit in state court that challenges a law that requires doctors who perform abortions to obtain hospital-admitting privileges.
Officials with the Red River Women's Clinic in downtown Fargo, where protesters hold weekly vigils on Wednesday when abortions are typically performed, argue the law could effectively make abortion illegal in North Dakota.
The measure was one of four Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed into law this past session that could spearhead a campaign to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion legal in most cases. Opponents have promised a long and costly legal battle.
North Dakota Attorney General Stenehjem said Wednesday afternoon he had not read the complaint but added that his office has been gearing up for the legal fight and would "zealously advocate" for the state in response to the lawsuit.
"This is a significant case, but we have lawyers in our office who handle controversial and complicated cases all the time," he said. "... We will zealously advocate as lawyers are required to do for our client."
Jeff Zent, spokesman for Dalrymple, said the governor could not comment because it's an open case. Dalrymple had said in a statement after the bill signing in March that it would likely face a court challenge.
"Nevertheless, it is a legitimate and new question for the courts regarding a precise restriction on doctors who perform abortions," the governor said.
The law being challenge is scheduled to take effect Aug. 1. Officials with the Center for Reproductive Rights said they plan to file lawsuits "soon" against two other abortion bills — including one that bans abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and before some women even know they're pregnant .
The sponsor of the admitting privileges bill, Republican Sen. Spencer Berry, said during the session that the law is needed to protect the health and safety of women who are having abortions.
Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the opposite is true.
"With their relentless campaign to end safe and legal abortion in North Dakota, lawmakers have effectively told the women of their state, 'We don't care about your health, we don't care about your safety, and we sure don't care about your constitutional and human rights,'" Northrup said Wednesday in a statement.
Officials with Dakotas-based Sanford Health say any doctor can apply for hospital credentials. Once an application has been submitted, several items are reviewed, including background checks on previous employment or medical school references, and malpractice information. The information then travels up the chain to three committees, ending with the hospital's board of directors.
Opponents of the measure say it's impossible for abortion doctors in North Dakota to meet the minimum number of hospital visits required for because the procedure is safe and women rarely need further care.
A nearly identical measure in Mississippi was signed into law last year and has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge after the Center for Reproductive Rights challenged the law on behalf of that state's only abortion clinic. That lawsuit claims the requirement "effectively gives local hospitals veto power" over the clinic's ability to keep its license and stay in business.
The Red River women's clinic performs about 1,200 abortions a year. Outside of Fargo, the nearest abortion clinics are four hours south in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and four hours southeast in Minneapolis.
Autumn Katz, staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, last month argued successfully to shoot down a 2011 North Dakota law that sought to limit the use of drugs to terminate pregnancies. She said after that trial she was prepared to take on the 2013 laws.
"My thoughts on that are that it's unfortunate that the Legislature seems to be treating women in North Dakota as second-class citizens and feels the need to deprive them of the rights that women in other states have," Katz said. "As the judge said, these rights are fundamental rights, and they shouldn't have to keep going back to court to make sure those rights are protected."