Abortion Opponents Gear Up For More Battles

In North Dakota, voters will decide next year whether to approve a constitutional amendment saying life begins at conception. A number of other bills in that state await the governor's signature including one that prohibits abortion if a fetal heartbeat is present at about six weeks. In Arkansas, a ban at 12 weeks passed earlier this month. Abortion opponents hope to get one of those laws before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Now to a debate over abortion that has escalated after some recent moves by states. The North Dakota legislature just passed a series of bills, including the strictest abortion ban in the country. And lawmakers there voted to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year which would end abortion entirely. Earlier this month, Arkansas passed a 12-week ban. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports that more states are debating stricter laws with hopes of getting one of them before the U.S. Supreme Court.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: A so-called personhood or human life amendment gives voters in North Dakota the chance to decide whether to grant legal rights to embryos. Republican State Senator Margaret Sitte co-sponsored the resolution.

STATE SENATOR MARGARET SITTE: Our state constitution refers to human beings. And it says that the purpose of government is the protection and security and benefit of the people. And so that's why we're saying that life must be recognized and protected.

LOHR: That measure, which says life would be recognized at any stage of development, will be on the ballot in 2014. That one doesn't need Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple's approval. But several other bills do await his decision, including one that makes it a felony for doctors to perform abortions if the fetus has a detectable heartbeat. Another bill bans abortions on the basis of gender or because of genetic abnormality. And one still being debated in the Republican-controlled legislature would outlaw abortions at 20 weeks.

PAUL MALONEY: Typically we would not be tackling this many bills in one session, but people are excited.

LOHR: That's Paul Maloney, executive director of North Dakota Right to Life. He says anti-abortion groups are trying a range of strategies and introducing more bills, in part because they know now they're looking at four more years of a president who supports abortion rights.

MALONEY: And that has people in the pro-life community very concerned, and trying to protect their state and limit the impact of those policies.

LOHR: But not everybody agrees with the bills.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Veto, veto, veto, veto...

LOHR: About 300 people rallied yesterday at the state capitol in Bismarck. Among the protestors, Dina Butcher, longtime Republican activist who says abortion should be kept out of politics.

DINA BUTCHER: This is not a legislative issue. This is between a woman and her family, her doctor and her God.

LOHR: The North Dakota Medical Association also opposes the bills. Dr. Stephanie Dahl is a reproductive endocrinologist in Fargo. She says they jeopardize in-vitro fertilization and the doctor-patient relationship.

DR. STEPHANIE DAHL: The language is very confusing. And when a doctor has to make a decision regarding a life-threatening situation, I don't think they want to be referring to the North Dakota code to determine if they're going to be charged criminally and go to jail for their decision.

LOHR: Four other states are considering abortion bans at six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. Nine states have already banned abortions at 20 weeks based on the theory that fetuses can feel pain. And more than half a dozen others are debating 20-week bans this year.

Elizabeth Nash, with the Guttmacher Institute, says the laws are unconstitutional.

ELIZABETH NASH: The Supreme Court has said that abortion cannot be restricted before viability. And then after viability, a state may limit access to a post-viability abortion but still has to make exceptions to protect the woman's life and health. And these laws really fly in the face of that standard.

LOHR: Sarah Stoesz, with Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, says abortion rights activists will fight these measures across the country.

SARAH STOESZ: There will clearly be a legal challenge to these bills should they become law. But we are also very much focused on a political response at the ballot box in 2014.

LOHR: Stoesz criticizes lawmakers for passing bills that will mean an expensive legal battle. But many in North Dakota who are opposed to abortion say the cost is worth it.

University of North Dakota political scientist Mark Jendrysek says there's competitiveness among lawmakers across the nation to up the ante when it comes to restricting abortion.

MARK JENDRYSEK: And you could say, well, you know, we're going to move this forward, right? Even if we move it forward three yards and a cloud of dust, we're still moving forward.

LOHR: Jendrysek says anti-abortion activists will keep pushing until they can get the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on one of these laws.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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