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Clinic challenges toughest-in-the-nation North Dakota abortion law

By Dave Thompson

BISMARCK, North Dakota (Reuters) - North Dakota's only abortion clinic on Tuesday filed a federal challenge to a new state law, the most restrictive in the country, one that would ban procedures to end pregnancy once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, as early as six weeks.

The Red River Women's Clinic said that banning abortions so early, before many women even knew they were pregnant, would bar nearly 90 percent of the abortions it performs.

The clinic asked a federal judge in the state capital of Bismarck to block the law and another one that bans abortions based solely on the sex of the baby or fetal anomaly. It argued that the laws violate the U.S. Constitution and place the health of women in danger.

The North Dakota laws, which were approved in March and are due to take effect on August 1, are among a host of restrictions on abortion passed by state legislatures this year. The ban based on fetal anomaly is the first of its kind in the nation.

Tuesday's challenge also comes as Texas lawmakers debate, during a special session that is due to end at midnight, whether to adopt a ban on most abortions at 20 weeks into pregnancy.

A dozen states have approved bans on most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but none have approved restrictions as strong as the ones enacted by North Dakota, or Arkansas. In March, Arkansas banned most abortions at 12 weeks into pregnancy, a law that a federal judge blocked in May, at least temporarily.

"Such an extreme ban on abortion would have a devastating impact on women in North Dakota and our neighboring states, especially those who do not have the resources to travel hundreds of miles to access reproductive healthcare," said Tammi Kromenaker, director of the Red River clinic, located in Fargo, North Dakota.

If the clinic closes or is forced to stop performing abortions, the closest alternatives are about 250 miles away in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, or Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The law provides exceptions if an abortion would prevent the death or irreversible impairment of a pregnant woman, but has no exception for rape and directly challenges Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in 1973.

Roe v. Wade and later court decisions have generally said that states cannot ban abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb.

"There's no reasonable basis for the state to come in and say those decisions should be overturned," said Janet Crepps, senior legal counsel for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents the clinic.

Governor Jack Dalrymple, a Republican in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature, said in March that it was not clear if the law would be constitutional but money should be provided by the state to defend it.

Supporters of the new North Dakota laws said 40 years of medical advancements such as sonograms make it easier to determine life.

Republican state Senator Margaret Sitte, a sponsor of several bills restricting abortion, said the legislature wrote the bill as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

"Roe v. Wade was written before we had sonogram technology, before we knew what we do know now about life, Sitte said. "So I think it is an excellent time."

The case is MKB Management Corp d/b/a Red River Women's Clinic, et al, v. Birch Burdick, et al, US District Court for the District of North Dakota, Southwestern Division, No. 13-CV-71.

(Additional reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune and Steve Orlofsky)

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