US Supreme Court rejects North Dakota 'foetal heartbeat' abortion law

Pro-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court during the National March for Life rally on Jan 22, 2016.
Pro-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court during the National March for Life rally on Jan 22, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Supreme Court on Monday (Jan 25) struck down North Dakota's last-ditch efforts to save a strict "foetal heartbeat" law that banned many abortions, weeks before another highly contentious case.

The mid-western state had hoped the top court in Washington would back the Republican-inspired law adopted in 2013, which forbids abortions as soon as a heartbeat is detected in a foetus.

A heartbeat can be detected just six weeks after conception, at a time when many women are not even sure yet that they are pregnant.

By refusing to review a lower court's ruling overturning the measures, the Supreme Court permanently blocked the law. The lower court had referred to the high court's rulings making clear that abortions are allowed until the foetus is deemed viable, around the 23rd or 24th week of pregnancy.

"We knew just going in it was going to be a long shot," the state's Attorney-General Wayne Stenehjem told The Bismarck Tribune.

"This is the end of what we can do."

Calling North Dakota's ban the "earliest and most extreme" in the nation, Centre for Reproductive Rights president Nancy Northup hailed the decision.

"Whether in North Dakota, Arkansas or Texas, politicians simply cannot rob women of their constitutional rights," she said in a statement.

"This utterly cruel and unconstitutional ban would have made North Dakota the first state since Roe v Wade to effectively ban abortion - with countless women left to pay the price."

North Dakota's bid is part of a series of conservative efforts seeking to challenge the historic "Roe v Wade" Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion in 1973.

From 2011 to 2014, US states adopted no less than 231 new abortion restrictions while the number of states considered hostile to abortion rights - with at least four types of abortion restrictions - more than doubled from 13 in 2000 to 27 in 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The high court has also agreed to take up on March 2 a highly fraught Texas case over the legality of state restrictions on abortion clinics. Its ruling in that case could have major implications on other measures limiting abortion rights.