A federal judge permanently struck down North Dakota’s six-week abortion ban on Wednesday. The so-called “fetal heartbeat” measure, which used to represent the harshest ban in the nation, had already been temporarily blocked from taking effect while the legal challenge against it proceeded.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland ruled that the law is “invalid and unconstitutional” and “cannot withstand a constitutional challenge,” pointing out that Roe v. Wade guarantees the right to abortion up until the point of viability.
Six week abortion bans seek to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat can first be detected, even though that typically occurs so early that some women don’t even realize they’re pregnant yet. This type of restriction is so radical that many Republicans won’t sign onto it, signaling the beginning of a larger split within the anti-choice community. Although lawmakers in at least five different states considered fetal heartbeat bans this year, none have been able to advance.
Arkansas is the only other state that’s been able to pass a harsh abortion restriction based on the fetal heartbeat framing. After widespread outcry, that measure ended up being amended to a slightly less restrictive 12-week ban — but it hasn’t fared any better in the courts. Last month, a federal judge struck it down.
The decision is a victory for women in North Dakota, who face huge barriers to abortion services. There’s only one abortion clinic left in the state, which has been struggling to remain open amid anti-choice attacks. Thanks to the hostile environment surrounding reproductive rights, many women in the state actually assume that conservative lawmakers have succeeded and abortion is already illegal.
Although abortion rights supporters have recently won several legal victories against harsh bans, it’s important to remember that other serious threats to women’s access to abortion often fly under the radar. States have successfully enacted a complex web of restrictions targeting clinics and providers that don’t grab as many headlines as more obviously harmful laws do. That’s why anti-choice groups tend to split over six-week abortion bans — the leaders of the movement know they’ll have more success with an incremental strategy to chip away at abortion rights when no one is looking.
“The court was correct to call this law exactly what it is: a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women. But women should not be forced to go to court, year after year in state after state, to protect their constitutional rights,” Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “We hope today’s decision, along with the long line of decisions striking down these attempts to choke off access to safe and legal abortion services in the U.S., sends a strong message to politicians across the country that our rights cannot be legislated away.”