North Dakota lawmakers approved measures Friday that would effectively ban abortion in the state, including a ballot referendum that would let voters declare that life begins at conception.
Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who has three legislative days to decide whether to sign or veto two of the three measures, hasn't signaled where he stands on the bills. The referendum doesn't need his signature and will be part of the state's 2014 general election ballot.
The measures, which had previously been approved by the state Senate and were passed Friday by the House, would ban abortions after 20 weeks except in medical emergencies and require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
The Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, North Dakota's sole abortion provider, said the hospital provision "is clearly intended to regulate abortion out of existence in North Dakota."
"Admitting privileges are not easily come by under any circumstances, but more importantly, such a requirement gives hospitals the power to decide whether abortion is even available in the state," the clinic said in a statement.
The clinic vowed to stay open and asked supporters on its Twitter feed to call Dalrymple to urge him to veto the measures.
Rep. Vernon Laning, a Republican from Bismarck, defended the hospital measure as a safeguard for women who have complications during their pregnancies.
"It ensures the physician is well-qualified to address the problem," Laning said on the House floor. "I certainly think a woman undergoing a procedure would want as many safety precautions as possible."
But Rep. Kylie Oversen, a Democrat from Grand Forks, said House Republicans had taken a giant step toward making North Dakota the most dangerous state in the U.S. for pregnant women, NBC station KMOT of Minot reported.
"As a young woman who has not yet had the privilege of becoming a mother, I want to know that when I make a decision to do so, any already difficult decision that I must face with my physicians and my family will not be complicated by legal matters, by an overreach of state government," Oversen said.
Opponents also said the measures would force the state to spend millions of dollars defending them against legal challenges 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down many state restrictions on abortion in its Roe v. Wade decision.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe cited that concern earlier this month in vetoing what he called a "blatantly unconstitutional" measure that banned abortions in that state after only 12 weeks. The Legislature overrode the veto, and that ban will go into effect in May.
The ballot measure, meanwhile, asks North Dakotans whether "the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected" — that is, to declare a fetus to be a person from the moment of conception.
The practical effect of the referendum, if approved by voters, would be to amend the state constitution to completely ban abortion, without exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the woman. Supporters said they hope it can serve as the basis for a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade.
Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, a national anti-abortion-rights activist group, said the referendum gives North Dakotans the chance to "(pave) the way for human rights nationwide."
"We applaud the North Dakota House and Senate for their willingness to protect all of the people in their state," Mason said in a statement.
But Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a pro-abortion-rights organization, said she was "confident that the voters of North Dakota will see through this blatant attack on Roe v. Wade and vote it down at the ballot box."