Judge Temporarily Blocks North Dakota’s Admitting Privileges Law

A state judge blocked a law imposing criminal penalties on providers who perform abortions without admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Two South Dakota bills that would have imposed severe restrictions on abortion procedures as well as penalties on abortion providers, including possible life in prison, will not move forward in the legislature. gavel via Shutterstock

A North Dakota admitting privileges law designed to close the only abortion clinic in the state was blocked temporarily on Wednesday as a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the law proceeds.

SB 2305, which was signed into law on March 26 and was set to take effect on Thursday, imposes the medically unwarranted requirement that physicians performing abortions in the state have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. Physicians who fail to comply with the admitting privileges requirement could be prosecuted for a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $3,000 fine.

In May, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed a lawsuit challenging the measure, supplementing a 2011 legal challenge to a similar law that included onerous medication abortion and transfer agreement rules. In both cases, CRR challenged the law on behalf of the Red River Women’s Clinic, the only abortion clinic in North Dakota, which provides a range of reproductive health services to women in North Dakota as well as to patients who travel from neighboring states, like South Dakota and Minnesota. In a July 15 ruling, state Judge Wickham Corwin permanently blocked the 2011 law, which he said violates the state and U.S. constitutions. Judge Corwin’s ruling on Wednesday sets the stage for a similar fate for the admitting privileges law.

“Today’s decision ensures that North Dakota’s only abortion clinic can keep its doors open to the many women it provides critical health care to every year,” said Bebe Anderson, director of the U.S. legal program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement. “We are confident that this law, and all the efforts to erode women’s constitutional rights and block their access to essential health care, ultimately will be struck down permanently.”

The decision is a clear victory for public health advocates and the latest in a series to come from the state. CRR also recently filed a federal lawsuit against two other unconstitutional North Dakota laws, one banning abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy and another outlawing abortions for reasons of sex selection or genetic fetal anomaly. On July 22, a federal judge blocked the six-week abortion ban from going into effect, calling the measure “clearly invalid and unconstitutional” under U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

North Dakota is not alone in its crusade to regulate clinics out of existence. In April, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking Mississippi’s law that requires any doctor who performs abortions in the state to be a board-certified OB-GYN, or eligible for certification, with admitting privileges at an area hospital. And in July, a federal judge in Alabama temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the admitting privileges portion of its new abortion law until March 2014, while a legal challenge filed by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union moves forward. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, a federal court issued a temporary injunction to block its similar admitting privileges law from taking effect earlier this month.