Appeals Court lifts North Dakota abortion law. Who is winning the legal fight?

A federal appeals court struck down a North Dakota law, considered by some as one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
A protester holds a copy of the bible outside of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington June 15, 2015.

On Wednesday, a federal appeals court struck down one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

The North Dakota law was intended to banned abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, according to The Associated Press.

But the federal court upheld a US District Court judge’s decision that blocked the 2013 law before it took effect, Reuters reported.

North Dakota’s only abortion clinic, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, spearheaded the legal fight against the law with help from the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“Today’s decision reaffirms that the US Constitution protects women from the legislative attacks of politicians who would deny them their right to safely and legally end a pregnancy. No woman should ever have to fear her constitutional rights could disappear overnight by virtue of where she lives,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement.

Proponents of the law said it was intended to “challenge the US Supreme Court's 1973 ruling that legalized abortion until a fetus is considered viable, usually at 22 to 24 weeks,” the AP noted.

Judges were not completely averse to a future reevaluation of their ruling if “medical and scientific advances […] show the concept of viability is subject to change,” according to Reuters.

The Center for Reproductive Rights’ statement also advocates in favor of the federal Women’s Health Protection Act – calling it a bill that would “prohibit states like North Dakota from imposing unconstitutional restrictions on reproductive health care providers that apply to no similar medical care, interfere with women’s personal decision making, and block access to safe and legal abortion services.​”

The last few months have brought both victories and defeats for pro-life and pro-choice activists.

Just this week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) implemented a law, which bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy with an extremely narrow exception for medical emergency.

In June, rulings in state and federal courts resulted in:

  • The protection of 10 abortion clinics in Texas that came under threat following a ruling that threatened to close all but nine abortion clinics in the state;
  • The prevention of a Florida measure that forces women to wait at least 24 hours and make an additional trip before receiving a legal abortion;
  • A prohibition of a Tennessee law that would force reproductive health care facilities providing more than 50 surgical abortions a year to meet the same building requirements of an ambulatory surgical treatment center, which could result in a closure of two of the six clinics providing surgical abortion in the state.

In March, the US Court of Appeals for the Eights Circuit permanently blocked Arkansas’ ban on abortions past 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, found 15 states enacted 26 new abortion restrictions in 2014, substantially fewer than the 22 states that enacted 70 restrictions the year before. 

Despite these legal changes, opinions regarding abortion have “remained relatively stable for more than 20 years,” according to the Pew Research Center, which found 51 percent of US adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 49 percent who say it should be illegal all or most of the time.

Recently, a controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood has put abortion back in the headlines. The organization has come under fire following the release of a viral video that accused them of selling organs from aborted fetuses.

Abortion has been legal for decades in the US. It was legalized in all 50 states in 1973 by the US Supreme Court but time limits on when abortions can take place vary from state to state, CNN notes.

“Under Roe v. Wade, abortions are generally permitted until the fetus is considered viable, or able to live outside the womb,” CNN explains. “Some states have no time limit, while others allow abortion up to the end of the second trimester, about 27 or 28 weeks into the pregnancy.”

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