Judge nixes law on doctor credentials for abortion

Staff Writer
Devils Lake Journal

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A judge ruled Wednesday to block a North Dakota law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges, after opponents of the bill argued it would shut down the clinic.

East Central District Judge Wickham Corwin presided over a 30-minute hearing about the bill, one of four anti-abortion laws passed this past session by the Republican dominated Legislature and signed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Afterward, Corwin signed a preliminary injunction stopping the law from taking effect Thursday, when several new bills officially become part of state code.

"Certainly none of this comes as a surprise," Corwin said from the bench. "I haven't heard anything in the last 15 minutes or so that changes my understanding or the facts or my thinking regarding the appropriate outcome."

Tami Kromenaker, director of the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, the state's sole abortion provider, showed up at the hearing in blue scrubs because Wednesday is the day when the facility typically performs abortions. She called the ruling ironic because it came on the 15th anniversary of the clinic.

"Come tomorrow, our doors will be open, and women in North Dakota do not have less rights than women in other states," Kromenaker said outside the courthouse.

Clinic officials have said the bill would likely force them out of business. The clinic, which performs about 1,200 abortions a year, is served by out-of-state physicians licensed to practice in North Dakota. The nearest abortion clinics are four hours south in Sioux Falls, S.D., and four hours southeast in Minneapolis.

The North Dakota law was sponsored by Republican Rep. Spencer Berry, a Fargo doctor who had one time had hospital privileges to deliver babies. He has said the legislation is meant to assure the health and safety of women and obtaining the credentials is not difficult.

Corwin disagreed with that notion by pointing out that the law could force women to obtain abortions by illegal and dangerous means.

"Once again it appears that the means chose by the state to advance its interests have nothing apparent or logical to commend them," the judge said.

Nine states have passed laws on admitting privileges, but the law has taken effect in only Utah and Tennessee, where there have been no legal challenges. Judges have blocked similar legislation in Alabama, Mississippi and Wisconsin.

Corwin had earlier ruled to combine the lawsuit with a 2011 suit that outlaws one of two drugs used in nonsurgical abortions. He has said the hospital privileges law raises the same "legal and factual matters" as the 2011 legislation, which Corwin thwarted with a July 15 ruling.

"I am not going to reconsider any legal determinations so far," Corwin said.

Half of the hearing was devoted to testimony from Autumn Katz, staff attorney for New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, and North Dakota Assistant Attorney General Doug Anderson. Corwin spent the last 15 minutes outlining his ruling.

Katz argued that law would withhold necessary services to the women, expose doctors to the threat of prosecution and deprive Kromenaker and other clinic workers of their right to earn a living. She said the legislation is not needed because the clinic provides safe outpatient abortion care.

Anderson said the state is saving most of its arguments for trial, at which time it will talk about safety at the clinic. He pointed out one case where a woman at the clinic was transported to a hospital for treatment, which Corwin said no one has disputed.

"When we've had one patient in the last 10 years who has needed emergency transport, I think that proves our safety record," Kromenaker said. "That woman is very important, but she was very well-cared for at the hospital. It did not require our physician to care for her at the hospital."

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

About a dozen abortion rights supporters gathered in front of the Cass County Courthouse before the hearing, holding signs that read "Abortion Providers Are Heroes" and "Abortion on Demand & Without Apology." The group identified itself as part of the "Abortion Rights Freedom Right" that was scheduled to include stops in 15 states. They applauded as Kromenaker walked into the building.

"We just converged on the East Coast and West Coast legs of our trip," said Sam Rodyah, one of the protesters. "From here we're going to five states where there's only one abortion clinic. We're trying to build a national counteroffensive against these attacks."