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Lawsuit challenges North Dakota abortion laws

BISMARCK — North Dakota's sole abortion clinic joined the country's largest physicians group in filing a federal lawsuit against two state laws they say will force doctors to misinform their patients and violate their medical ethics Tuesday, June 25.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in North Dakota by the American Medical Association and the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, argues a bill passed earlier this year requiring physicians to tell patients it may be possible to reverse a drug-induced abortion is "wholly unsupported" by science. The law takes effect Aug. 1.

The lawsuit also challenges a statute that's already on the books mandating that physicians inform women that an abortion will "terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being." The complaint argues that represents a "controversial and ideological message about fetal personhood that is unmoored from medical science."

The plaintiffs argued the requirements violate their First Amendment rights and "compel physicians and their agents to speak government-mandated messages that entail providing to their patients misleading or even patently false, non-medical information with which they disagree." They're seeking to block enforcement of the "compelled speech laws."

In a statement, AMA President Dr. Patrice Harris said North Dakota's mandates undermine the patient-physician relationship, which "depends upon honest, open conversations about all of a patient’s health care options."

“North Dakota’s laws are forcing us to say things that violate our medical ethics and will soon force us to say things that are simply false and not backed up by science," Tammi Kromenaker, director of the Red River Women's Clinic, said in a statement.

Supporters of House Bill 1336, which the Republican-controlled Legislature easily passed before Gov. Doug Burgum signed it in March, argued it would give women the full information needed to make a decision about ending a pregnancy.

"If it gives hope to even one person who has started the process and wants to try to reverse it, it is worth providing that information," Burgum, a Republican, said after signing the bill.

Eight states, including South Dakota, have approved similar laws requiring abortion providers to inform patients about "abortion reversal," according to a news release from the Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

A spokesman for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Tuesday afternoon they had not yet been served with a lawsuit. Republican Rep. Daniel Johnston, the chief backer of this year's bill, didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.

North Dakota lawmakers also approved legislation this year banning a second trimester abortion method, but it only becomes effective with federal court action or a change in the U.S. Constitution. Kromenaker said they're waiting for a decision from a federal appeals court on a similar Arkansas law.

There were 1,155 abortions performed in North Dakota in 2017, according to state records.

Tuesday's lawsuit reignites a legal fight over abortion in North Dakota. In 2013, the state passed what was described as the country's most restrictive abortion ban because it outlawed the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, but it was ultimately defeated in court.

Abortion opponents have been bolstered by recent appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting a wave of legislation across the country.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

(701) 255-5607
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