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North Dakota abortion clinic settles lawsuit over hospital privileges
First Published Mar 14 2014 09:48 am • Last Updated Mar 14 2014 09:48 am

Bismarck, N.D. • North Dakota’s sole abortion clinic has settled a lawsuit it filed over a new law requiring doctors who perform abortions to obtain hospital-admitting privileges, officials said Friday.

Wayne Stenehjem, the state attorney general, and an attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which assisted the Red River Women’s Clinic in its lawsuit, told The Associated Press that the settlement was reached late Thursday and sent to Judge Wickham Corwin for approval Friday.

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The Fargo-based clinic filed the lawsuit last year, saying the 2013 law requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic would effectively abolish abortion in North Dakota.

It said it would be impossible for the three out-of-state doctors who perform the roughly 1,200 abortions per year at the clinic to make the required number of hospital visits needed to gain admitting privileges. It also argued that the requirement was unnecessary because women who get abortions rarely require hospitalization for further treatment.

Corwin granted a preliminary injunction in July blocking enforcement of the law.

Last month, Sanford Health, a Fargo and Sioux Falls, S.D. -based health system, said physicians at the Red River Women’s Clinic have been credentialed at its hospital in Fargo. Stenehjem said this made the lawsuit moot.

"Initially, in their lawsuit, they didn’t think they could get hospital-admitting privileges and that it violated the state constitution," Stenehjem said. "They did get hospital-admitting privileges, so there is no reason to move forward with this litigation. The parties agreed to dismiss the case with no costs or attorney fees paid to either party."

The agreement requires the physicians performing abortions at the clinic to maintain admitting privileges at a local hospital for as long as the law remains in effect, Stenehjem said. It also requires any additional physicians to get admitting privileges at a local hospital, he said.

"We are pleased that the physicians at the Red River Women’s Clinic have been able to obtain admitting privileges and reach a settlement with state officials, but the fact remains that this law’s intention was to shutter the only abortion clinic in the state," Autumn Katz, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement to the AP. "Our court battles continue as we fight the other equally extreme efforts to ban abortion in the state."

The hospital-admitting privileges measure was one of four that the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple passed last year that made North Dakota the most difficult state in the nation in which to get an abortion. Stenehjem said the state has spent about $250,000, to date, defending court challenges to the new laws.

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The most restrictive new law bars an abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and before some women know they are pregnant. But a federal judge, siding with abortion-rights advocates, called the law "clearly invalid and unconstitutional" and agreed to temporarily block it as legal challenges play out in court.

Backers of fetal heartbeat laws contend that they offer a legitimate challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe. v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until the point of viability, or when a fetus viably could be expected to survive outside the womb. That is typically at 22 to 24 weeks.

The state Supreme Court has a ruling pending on another challenge to a 2011 North Dakota law outlawing one of two drugs used in nonsurgical abortions.


Follow James MacPherson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/macphersonja

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