N. Dakota sets stage for new battle over abortion, adopting nation’s strictest law

North Dakota adopted the nation’s strictest abortion ban Tuesday, setting the stage for a lengthy court battle and reviving the charge among abortion-rights supporters that Republicans are “radical” on women’s health. 

The measure, signed Tuesday by North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R), bans abortions when doctors can first detect a heartbeat, or after about six weeks of fetal development.

Two other new laws ban genetic and gender discrimination in abortions, and require abortion doctors to maintain admitting privileges at a hospital. 

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Dalrymple’s quick decision to approve the measures came as a surprise to abortion-rights supporters, who savaged the laws in language reminiscent of the 2012 election. 

Planned Parenthood’s political arm called the bans an “unprecedented attack on women’s rights and health” and a “wake-up call for the country.”

“With one swipe of his pen, the governor has severely compromised the health and well-being of families and women in North Dakota,” said Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

Abortion-rights opponents, meanwhile, praised the groundswell of support for more restrictions. 

The North Dakota law “reveals the disconnect that we’re seeing between the will of Americans at the grassroots level versus the status quo of Roe v. Wade,” said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee that opposes abortion rights. 

Abortion issues were a major flashpoint in the 2012 cycle. Former GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin’s (Mo.) controversial comment on rape — that women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant because the body “has ways of trying to shut the whole thing down” — likely cost him his race. 

Democrats jumped on the comments, seeking to use them against other Republicans around the country. Pollsters say this contributed to one of the largest presidential gender gaps on record. 

On Tuesday, Democrats in North Dakota immediately began raising funds from the state’s new abortion laws, and abortion-rights supporters vowed to take the same arguments to voters during the midterm elections. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) questioned the North Dakota law’s relevance to voters going to the polls next year. 

“That’s a state-level issue for the folks in North Dakota to discuss, a state which to my knowledge doesn’t have a competitive race in 2014 unless Heidi Heitkamp decides to retire,” NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring said 

In addition to the six-week ban, Dalrymple also approved a prohibition on abortions based on genetic or gender discrimination Tuesday.

The Republican governor also OKed a requirement that North Dakota doctors who administer abortions maintain hospital admitting privileges. 

Each of the laws promises its own court battle. 

The “heartbeat” ban goes into effect in August, and the first lawsuits are expected mid-summer. The Center for Reproductive Rights will represent the state’s sole abortion clinic. 

Dalrymple said Tuesday that the new law is a test to “discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.” Arkansas previously had the most stringent ban, at 12 weeks. 

“Because the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed state restrictions on the performing of abortions and because the Supreme Court has never considered this precise restriction ... the constitutionality of this measure is an open question,” Dalrymple said in a statement. 

North Dakota is also likely to hold a referendum on whether life begins at conception, perhaps in 2014. 

That vote would effectively ban all abortion in the state if it passes, though opponents say there’s a possibility it could be challenged in court before appearing on the ballot. 

This was the case in Oklahoma in 2012, where a “personhood” measure was shot down in court before voters could weigh in. 

Quigley said that for many Americans, Roe v. Wade is “not settled law.”

“The issue is unresolved for many, many Americans and they want to see life protected and they are taking to the state legislatures to protect it,” Quigley said.

Robin Nelson, an abortion-rights supporter who demonstrated at the North Dakota State Capitol earlier this week, said the new state laws are a “backdoor way to shut down abortion clinics.”

She warned that some angry activists could call for Dalrymple’s impeachment or a recall. 

A less extreme — and more likely — approach, she said, will be to focus on the midterm elections.