BISMARCK — A team of ultra-conservative North Dakota lawmakers has thrown its weight behind a bill that would make getting an abortion in the state legally akin to murdering an unborn child. Anti-abortion advocates are withholding judgment on the new proposal, but Democratic lawmakers reject it, saying the state would end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars defending an unconstitutional abortion bill.

Under House Bill 1313, someone found to have performed an abortion, unless the procedure is done to save the life of the mother, would be guilty of a Class AA felony, punishable by up to life in prison without parole.

The proposal also states that anyone who aided or facilitated the performance of an abortion could be found guilty of a Class C felony, which comes with up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. The bill does not take aim at women seeking abortions.

Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo is the state's only facility permitted to perform legal abortions, making North Dakota one of just six states with a single clinic. The clinic's director did not respond to requests for comment.

The bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Jeff Hoverson, said it's unquestionable that abortion should be a crime. The Minot, N.D., Republican said he's a Christian but noted that his sense of morality, not his faith, is driving him to push the legislation.

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"I think it's long past due that we've got to start listening to the babies," Hoverson said. "Any human that would have compassion would not want to see a baby die that way, but it's not because some religion taught me. It's everything from humanity to common sense. I think even an atheist could come to that."

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said his chamber has strongly opposed abortion in the past, but the harsh penalties outlined in Hoverson's bill go a step too far.

"I don't believe we should be having felony convictions for those folks — that's my opinion, but I can't speak for the whole (Republican) caucus," Pollert said.

Sierra Heitkamp, executive director of North Dakota Right to Life, said the anti-abortion group is withholding judgment on the bill until it hears directly from Hoverson at a meeting of the unofficial "pro-life caucus" on Thursday, Jan. 14. A representative from Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, did not respond to a request for comment.

If Hoverson's bill becomes law, it would likely put North Dakota at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which protects a woman's right to have an abortion.

Rep. Jeff Hoverson, R-Minot, speaks on the floor of the North Dakota House in 2019. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune
Rep. Jeff Hoverson, R-Minot, speaks on the floor of the North Dakota House in 2019. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said passing the legislation would engage the state in another futile legal battle that costs taxpayers money. North Dakota ended up paying $245,000 in a settlement with the Fargo clinic and about $325,000 in other legal expenses following a failed attempt to uphold a 2013 law that banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

"These types of bills pop up most sessions and again they lose in court cases because they're not necessarily well-crafted to meet the objective of the bill authors," Boschee said. "They're just political statements at this point."

Hoverson said it would be great if his legislation prompted an overturning of the nearly 50-year-old Supreme Court decision, but more than that, he hopes the state just ignores the high court's ruling. He said that an "egregious" issue like legal abortion warrants North Dakota standing up and telling the Supreme Court it has no jurisdiction in the state.

"We've allowed the Supreme Court to hold us hostage," Hoverson said. "We're willing to go against federal law for marijuana, but we won't do it for a baby."

The Minot lawmaker added that it's "irrelevant" whether defending an anti-abortion law would cost the state money because passing one is "the right thing to do."

Boschee said Hoverson's desire to ignore the courts effectively amounts to seceding from the rest of the country. In addition to being unpalatable from a cultural standpoint, Boschee said it would cause enormous fiscal problems for a state that relies heavily on federal funding. The Fargo Democrat added that Hoverson's point about states legalizing marijuana despite it being federally illegal doesn't hold up because the federal government has looked the other way on the issue, but it would almost certainly challenge an anti-abortion law.

Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, D-Fargo, sits on the House Human Services Committee, where the bill has been assigned. Dobervich said she has proposed an amendment to Hoverson's proposal that would make it so, if the bill is passed, it would only take effect if Roe v. Wade is repealed.

Dobervich also proposed adding an $800,000 price tag to the bill to account for the funds the state would spend defending the law in court. She said that kind of money could be better spent preventing unwanted pregnancies through sex education initiatives and greater access to birth control.

North Dakota lawmakers have a long history of strict anti-abortion legislation. In addition to the 2013 "heartbeat bill," they approved a measure in 2019 that required doctors to tell women they may reverse a drug-induced abortion if they have second thoughts. That law is still a matter of pending litigation, said Liz Brocker, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that bars doctors from using scissors, clamps and forceps to remove fetuses from the womb during the second trimester of pregnancy. That law has not been challenged in the courts, Brocker said.

Dobervich said that given the Legislature's history of passing anti-abortion laws, the chances are good that Hoverson's bill will pass.