North Dakota Judge Won't Block Part Of Abortion Law Doctors Say Puts Them At Risk Of Prosecution

FILE - North Dakota Special Assistant Attorney General Dan Gaustad, right, argues before South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick, not pictured, during a hearing, Dec. 20, 2023, in Bismarck, N.D, over the state's revised abortion laws. At left is Meetra Mehdizadeh, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, who argued on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic, which has sued over the abortion ban. A North Dakota judge on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, denied a temporary block on a part of the state's revised abortion laws so that doctors can perform the procedure to save a patient's life or health. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)
FILE - North Dakota Special Assistant Attorney General Dan Gaustad, right, argues before South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick, not pictured, during a hearing, Dec. 20, 2023, in Bismarck, N.D, over the state's revised abortion laws. At left is Meetra Mehdizadeh, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, who argued on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic, which has sued over the abortion ban. A North Dakota judge on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, denied a temporary block on a part of the state's revised abortion laws so that doctors can perform the procedure to save a patient's life or health. (Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota judge ruled Tuesday that he won’t block a part of a state law that doctors say puts them at risk of prosecution if they perform an abortion to save a patient’s life or health.

State District Judge Bruce Romanick said the request for a preliminary injunction “is not appropriate and the Plaintiffs have presented no authority for the Court to grant the specific relief requested.” The lawsuit will continue to play out in court, with a jury trial set for August.

The request asked the judge to bar the state from enforcing the law against physicians who use their “good-faith medical judgment” to perform an abortion because of complications that could pose "a risk of infection, hemorrhage, high blood pressure, or which otherwise makes continuing a pregnancy unsafe.”

Physicians face “the harm of having the threat of criminal prosecution hanging over their head every time they treat a patient with a medical complication,” attorney Meetra Mehdizadeh, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in court arguments last month.

In a statement Tuesday, Mehdizadeh said, “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."

North Dakota outlaws abortion except for cases in which women could face death or a “serious health risk.” People who perform abortions could be charged with a felony under the law, but patients would not.

The judge said the plaintiffs appeared to request that he, “by way of a preliminary injunction, change application of the exception from ‘reasonable medical judgment’ to ‘good faith medical judgment.’ Plaintiffs have cited the Court with no legal authority that would allow the Court to re-write the statute in this manner under the pretense of providing injunctive relief.”

The state's revised abortion laws also provide an exception for pregnancies caused by rape and incest, but only in the first six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. It also allows for treatment of ectopic and molar pregnancies, which are nonviable situations.

Republican state Sen. Janne Myrdal, who brought the 2023 bill revising revising the laws, welcomed the judge's ruling.

“I think we have something that's very clear for physicians to see," she said. "I think it's common sense what we put in as far as the health exceptions, and it goes with the intent of the legislators, so I applaud this judge for reading into it and realizing that the authority lies with us, as far as writing the law, and interpreting it simply shouldn't be that hard for the physicians.”

The Red River Women’s Clinic sued the state in 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned the court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling establishing a nationwide right to abortion.

The lawsuit targeted the state’s since-repealed trigger ban — designed to go into effect immediately if the court overturned Roe v. Wade — as unconstitutional. The clinic moved from Fargo to neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota, where abortion is legal.

The judge granted a preliminary injunction blocking the ban from taking effect in 2022, a decision the state Supreme Court upheld in March.

Chief Justice Jon Jensen wrote in the court’s decision that “it is clear the citizens of North Dakota have a right to enjoy and defend life and a right to pursue and obtain safety, which necessarily includes a pregnant woman has a fundamental right to obtain an abortion to preserve her life or her health.”

Soon afterward, North Dakota’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill revising the state’s abortion laws, which Gov. Doug Burgum signed in April.

In June, the clinic filed an amended complaint, joined by several doctors in obstetrics, gynecology and maternal-fetal medicine.

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This story has been corrected to show that The Red River Women’s Clinic sued the state in 2022, not last year.