ND abortion proposal could draw legal challenges

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm •  Published: February 20, 2013
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FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Nearly two dozen women get abortions on an average Wednesday at the lone North Dakota clinic that performs them, often spending scarce resources to travel long distances to the Fargo building, where volunteers escort them through a crowd of protesters lining the street outside.

The Red River Valley Women's Clinic, which opened under another name in 1981, is the only place within 230 miles where abortions are performed legally — an estimated 1,200 a year. Now clinic officials fear they may need to go to court just to stay in business.

North Dakota appears ready to follow Mississippi's lead in requiring that doctors who perform abortions have hospital-admitting privileges. Clinic director Tammi Kromenaker said the bill could cut services for the women it serves, about half of whom are estimated to be living below the poverty line.

"It's not over until the governor signs the bill, and then we take the next steps and see where that leads us," Kromenaker said. "If our doctors are not able to get privileges, you can just look to Mississippi what happened there. We would have to litigate this."

Outside of Fargo, the nearest abortion clinics are four hours to the south in Sioux Falls, S.D., and four hours to the southeast in Minneapolis.

The crowd of protesters this Wednesday was smaller than usual, largely because of the subzero temperatures. But Ken Koehler was among those at 8 a.m., bundled up in a parka and carrying a sign urging women to ask him for help or call an 800 number.

If Mississippi's continuing fight is any indication, the Fargo clinic will likely be embroiled in legal challenges for some time if Senate Bill 2305, which is expected to pass the House, becomes law. The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Spencer Berry, a Fargo doctor, stopped short of saying the proposal is meant to shut down the clinic.

"The goal of the legislation is to try and provide good public policy, for now and going forward as it relates to the state's ability to assure that this is about the health and safety of the women who are presenting for abortion services," Berry said.

Kromenaker said the bill — along with a number of other abortion measures proposed by the Republican-dominated Legislature — is meant to make it impossible for the facility to operate.

"Sen. Berry must know if you look at other states like Mississippi that have done similar measures, it is close to shutting down one clinic," she said. "My concern with him saying that is that he is not looking at our safety record or he is questioning our safety record."

Mississippi passed a law last year that requires anyone doing abortions to be an OB-GYN with privileges to admit patients to the hospital. The state's lone abortion clinic announced last month it had received notice that the state health department intends to revoke its operating license, though it is not expected to close anytime soon.

In a lawsuit filed by the Jackson, Miss., clinic, the facility's attorneys argued that the admitting privileges requirement "effectively gives local hospitals veto power" over the clinic's ability to keep its license and stay in business.