BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A Dakotas-based health care system has granted hospital-admitting privileges to doctors at North Dakota's sole abortion provider, which would bring the Fargo clinic into compliance with a new state law.
In a statement Thursday to The Associated Press, Sanford Health said physicians at the Red River Women's Clinic have been credentialed at its hospital in Fargo.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, which is helping the Red River Women's Clinic, filed a lawsuit in state court last year challenging the law that requires doctors who perform abortions to obtain hospital-admitting privileges within 30 miles of the abortion facility.
The case was slated for trial this week but was taken off the docket as a result of settlement talks, which the New York-based group announced this week without elaborating.
A state judge in July granted a preliminary injunction that prevents the law from taking effect. A judge had earlier ordered that the lawsuit over hospital-admitting privileges be combined with a 2011 suit over a law that outlaws one of two drugs used in nonsurgical abortions. A North Dakota Supreme Court ruling on that case is pending.
East Central Judge Wickham Corwin has said the hospital privileges law raises the same "legal and factual matters" as the 2011 legislation.
Autumn Katz, staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement that her group "cannot discuss the details of any potential settlement before it is finalized."
Clinic director Tammi Kromenaker and a spokeswoman for the North Dakota attorney general's office, which defends state laws against court challenges, also declined comment.
Opponents had said the 2013 law would effectively make abortions illegal in North Dakota. They feared it would be impossible for doctors performing abortions to meet the number of hospital visits required to gain admitting privileges because the procedure is safe and women rarely need further care requiring hospitalization.
The clinic, which performs about 1,200 abortions a year, is served by three out-of-state physicians licensed to practice in North Dakota.
Sanford Health is a Fargo and Sioux Falls, S.D. -based health system. It bills itself as the nation's largest not-for-profit rural health care provider, with locations in 126 communities in nine states.
It's unclear when Sanford granted credentials to the three doctors at the abortion clinic.
Sanford's statement said its approval of admitting privileges is "based on objective criteria that is completely focused on protecting patients and providing safe patient care." The health system says the criteria "is applied in a neutral unbiased manner."
Eight states including North Dakota have passed laws requiring an abortion provider to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. They only have taken effect in Utah, Tennessee and Texas, although a court challenge looms there. Judges have blocked similar legislation in Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi and Wisconsin.
The North Dakota measure was one of four that the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple passed last year that make North Dakota the most difficult state in the nation in which to get an abortion.
The most restrictive new law bars an abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and before some women know they are pregnant. But a federal judge, siding with abortion-rights activists, called the law "clearly invalid and unconstitutional" and agreed to temporarily block it as legal challenges play out in court.
Law supporters, including Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the law is a legitimate challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe. v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until a fetus is considered viable, usually at 22 to 24 weeks
Abortion-rights advocates argue the spate of new laws is an attempt to close North Dakota's only abortion in downtown Fargo.
Two new anti-abortion laws, however, took effect in August, including bans on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and on abortions based on sex selection or a genetic defect. But abortion-rights activists said neither law affects the Fargo clinic because such abortions are not done there.
Kromenaker, director of the Fargo clinic, has said that the facility ended 2013 with the fewest number of pregnancy-ending procedures recorded in more than a decade, a drop she attributed in part to the new legislation that may have confused some women into thinking abortion in North Dakota now outlawed.
The clinic conducted about 1,125 abortions last year, down from 1,330 in 2012.
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