(CN) - It is "invalid and unconstitutional" for North Dakota to ban abortions if the fetus presents a heartbeat, a federal judge ruled.
Red River Women's Clinic - the only abortion clinic in North Dakota - and its medical director, Dr. Kathryn Eggleston, had sued the state in 2013 shortly after the enactment of HB 1456. The law would have banned physicians from performing an abortion if the unborn child "has a detectable heartbeat," except in cases where the mother's life was in danger or faced serious injury.
The law effectively would have banned abortions at six weeks of pregnancy. The state later filed an affidavit in December 2013 that expanded the ban to all abortions after the point of conception.
Physicians who violated the law would face a class C felony and the possible suspension or revocation of their medical license, while the pregnant woman would not be charged.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland in Bismarck granted the clinic summary judgment Wednesday, saying "there is no question" the law is a "direct contradiction of U.S. Supreme Court case law addressing restraints on abortion."
In a 25-page opinion, Hovland said the state provided no reliable medical evidence to justify the passage of the "troubling" law. He said the Supreme Court has "unequivocally" ruled that no state can deprive a woman the option of abortion prior to viability.
"The controversy over a woman's right to choose to have an abortion will never end," Hovland wrote. "The issue is undoubtedly one of the most divisive of social issues. The United States Supreme Court will eventually weigh in on this emotionally-fraught issue but, until that occurs, this court is obligated to uphold existing Supreme Court precedent."
Hovland refused to accept the state's argument that viability of a fetus occurs at conception, which is a different definition than the one used by the Supreme Court or the medical community generally. To do so would result "in the complete ban of all abortions," which is in "clear defiance" of the precedent, the court found.
"The state does not contend that an embryo can be sustained on a continuous basis, and properly nourished from the time of conception, without the need for further development in the uterus," Hovland wrote. "Nor has the state cited to any medical literature to support this theory of viability. There may indeed be medical developments that will one day significantly affect the precise point of viability. But the Supreme Court has announced the rule of law which this court has no authority to renounce."
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Wednesday he was not surprised by Hovland's ruling. He has yet to decide if the state will appeal.
The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights sued the state on the clinic's behalf. Nancy Northrup, its president and CEO, hailed the ruling as stopping a "return to the dark days" before Roe v. Wade.
"The court was correct to call this law exactly what it is: a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women," Northrup said. "But women should not be forced to go to court, year after year in state after state, to protect their constitutional rights."
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