BISMARCK (AP) - A North Dakota judge on Wednesday agreed to combine a lawsuit that challenges a new requirement for doctors who perform abortions with litigation over a 2011 law that limits the use of drugs to terminate pregnancies.
East Central Judge Wickham Corwin said he will allow the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo clinic, backed by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, to combine the previous lawsuit with new litigation over a law that requires doctors who perform abortions to obtain hospital-admitting privileges.
The Fargo judge has not issued a formal ruling on either suit. However, in April he said he would rule in favor of the abortion clinic in its challenge of the law limiting abortion-inducing drugs. Corwin, who had already granted an injunction preventing the law from taking effect, called that legislation "simply wrongheaded."
Attorneys for the clinic said the 2013 law raises the same "legal and factual matters" as the 2011 legislation. State attorneys have argued that the cases are "separate and distinct."
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a statement Wednesday that the state will now defend both laws before the North Dakota Supreme Court.
Opponents say the 2013 law would effectively make abortions illegal in North Dakota. They say it would be impossible for doctors performing abortions to meet the number of hospital visits required to gain admitting privileges because the procedure is safe and women rarely need further care requiring hospitalization.
The 2011 law outlaws one of two drugs used in nonsurgical abortions. Autumn Katz, staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is helping the clinic with its legal challenges, argued that would essentially eliminate the procedure altogether and illegally restrict abortion rights. Corwin agreed.
"We are pleased that the judge has allowed our legal challenge to the state's medically unwarranted admitting privileges law to supplement an existing lawsuit against North Dakota's unconstitutional restrictions on medication abortion," Katz said in a written statement. "Because the court has already considered many of the facts about the safety and quality of care provided at the Red River Women's Clinic, we believe today's decision will expedite the litigation and ultimately result in both laws being permanently struck down as unconstitutional."
North Dakota already has spent more than $52,000 defending the 2011 state law, according to records obtained by The Associated Press. Records show that Dr. Donna Harrison, the president the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, has billed the state more than $49,000 to act as an expert witness.
The law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have hospital-admitting priviledges was one of four that the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple passed this year that make North Dakota the most restrictive state in the nation in which to get an abortion. Lawmakers who introduced the measures say they want to close the Fargo clinic and challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until viability, usually at 22 to 24 weeks.
The new laws are slated to take effect Aug. 1 The Center for Reproductive Rights says it plans to file lawsuits this month against two other new abortion laws, including one that bans the procedure when a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.