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US/ North Dakota: listening to the heartbeat of unborn children

North Dakota has passed a "heartbeat bill", similar to an Arkansas law, to restrict abortion after 6 weeks, as part of a trend in some states to protect fetal life. SHARON MOLLERUS

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Forty years after Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating abortion nationwide as a privacy right, the governor of North Dakota, Jack Dalrymple, has just signed a bill prohibiting abortion, without exceptions for rape or genetic abnormalities, once a fetal heartbeat is detected. At six weeks, the heartbeat can be registered via transvaginal ultrasound.

Governor Dalrymple stated that although the law may not be allowed to stand, "These are bills that have passed the legislature. This is what they want to do." He added, "Because the US 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."

The North Dakota bill is now the strictest in the nation with a maximum penalty of $5,000, five years imprisonment and loss of a medical license to be levied on doctors in violation of the ban, with no provision sanctioning for those women seeking abortions. The Republican-led North Dakota legislature has subsequently passed a "personhood amendment" defining life as beginning at conception, which it is expected to be put on the state ballot next year.

In Arkansas, a ban on abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy, or when a heartbeat can be heard by abdominal monitor, was passed over Democratic Governor Mike Beebe's veto. Some Democrats joined the Republican party in passing the Human Heartbeat Protection Act, while expecting a constitutional challenge before the bill goes into effect in 90 days. Similar legislation, a ballot measure in Mississippi and legislation in Ohio, have not passed. More heartbeat laws are already in process in Kansas, Kentucky and Wyoming.

On the other hand, Washington state is trying to require the Affordable Care Act to pay for abortions, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is seeking legislation to ensure that late-term abortions are available for medical reasons. In fact, states are increasingly becoming polarized through legislation which either supports or restricts abortions, with a "shrinking middle ground", according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion think tank.

Some anti-abortion groups have opposed the heartbeat measures, arguing that they are futile challenges to constitutional law which divert the resources of their cause. Last October, an amendment to Oklahoma's state constitution, which would have granted "personhood" to unborn children, was struck down after the state's Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review it.