Judge Says North Dakota Can Prosecute Doctors for Emergency Abortions—for Now
"I hate to think that someone is harmed as a result of this denial. Abortion is a medical procedure," an abortion clinic director said. "It is not a crime."
On Tuesday, a North Dakota judge ruled that the state can continue to enforce its abortion ban even in situations where an abortion is necessary to preserve the pregnant person’s life or health—at least for now. The judge denied a request from the Center for Reproductive Rights for an injunction to block the ban from being enforced in medical emergencies amid the organization’s ongoing lawsuit against the state, at least until the district court issues a ruling. (A jury trial is set for August, according to the Associated Press.) In 2023, the Center filed its lawsuit arguing that the medical emergency exception attached to the state’s total abortion ban is too narrow and violates the state’s Constitution.
“Though we are disappointed by today’s decision, the court did not reach the constitutional questions at the heart of this case, and we remain confident that we will prevail after the court hears further evidence of how this law harms pregnant North Dakotans,” Meetra Mehdizadeh, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.
In March 2023, the North Dakota state Supreme Court blocked the state’s original abortion ban—a trigger law that took effect once the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022—because the trigger law didn’t provide exceptions to save the pregnant person’s life. A month later, North Dakota Republicans passed a new abortion ban that included a narrow exception for such medical emergencies, which was then signed into law and is now in effect, prompting the Center to file its lawsuit.
In the request for an injunction, the Center asked the judge to prohibit the state from prosecuting physicians who use their “good-faith medical judgment” to offer emergency abortions due to pregnancy-related complications that present “a risk of infection, hemorrhage, high blood pressure, or which otherwise makes continuing a pregnancy unsafe.” State District Judge Bruce Romanick said on Tuesday that this request “is not appropriate and the Plaintiffs have presented no authority for the Court to grant the specific relief requested.”
Doctors and health care providers in North Dakota say they fear criminal charges and prosecution for providing abortion care even to save a pregnant person’s life. “This decision is truly disappointing; North Dakotans can’t be granted even temporary relief as the court hears our case?” Tammi Kromenaker, director of Red River Women’s Clinic—which is a plaintiff in the case—said in a statement following the district court’s decision. “I hate to think that someone is harmed as a result of this denial. Abortion is a medical procedure. It is not a crime. No one should be denied health care they are entitled to.” Red River Women’s Clinic formerly operated in North Dakota but has since moved to Minnesota because of the state’s ban.
The Center for Reproductive Rights is also suing Idaho, Texas, and Tennessee, seeking to clarify the “medical emergency” exceptions attached to their abortion bans. The Center argues that these supposed exceptions are too vague and fail to sufficiently help patients who may face life and health-endangering complications, or protect doctors from criminal liability for offering stabilizing abortion care. In the Center’s lawsuits for these states, plaintiffs include women who experienced severe, potentially life-threatening pregnancy complications and were denied medically necessary abortions. One plaintiff from Tennessee says she suffered “physical and emotional torture” from being forced to carry a nonviable pregnancy for months because she was denied an emergency abortion in Tennessee and couldn’t travel out of state for care.
Center for Reproductive Rights attorney Linda Goldstein told Jezebel earlier this month that there’s a throughline that connects all of these cases. “They show exceptions don’t work—that’s really the bottom line. These exceptions have always just been window-dressing to make abortion bans look reasonable,” Goldstein said. “The language is too vague and too difficult for doctors to be able to apply to save someone’s life—and that’s the entire point.”