A federal judge on Monday blocked enforcement of North Dakota's recently enacted ban on most abortions, calling it "invalid and unconstitutional."
The law under challenge, which was set to take effect Aug. 1, would have imposed by far the country's most stringent limit on abortions. With few exceptions, it would bar the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected, often about six weeks into pregnancy — a point when many women are not aware they are pregnant.
From the moment in March when it was adopted, most legal experts said that the law would not survive because it posed a direct challenge to Supreme Court guidelines, which state that a woman has a right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb. Viability must be determined by a physician and often occurs around 24 weeks into pregnancy.
Some antiabortion leaders and politicians argued that the presence of a heartbeat is, in itself, a form of viability. They expressed hope that the Supreme Court would revisit the issue.
When he signed the bill, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, called it "a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe vs. Wade."
In a withering opinion issued on Monday, Judge Daniel Hovland of the U.S. District Court in North Dakota said he had no choice but to block the law. He described it as "in direct contradiction to a litany of United States Supreme Court cases addressing restraints on abortion."
His decision Monday imposed a temporary injunction, until the issue is decided at a trial.
North Dakota's law is the most far-reaching among scores of restrictive abortion statutes, many of them under court challenge, that have been passed by state governments in recent years. A dozen states, most recently Texas, have adopted laws barring abortions at 20 weeks after conception on the disputed theory that the fetus can feel pain at that point.