The state rated one of the worst for access to women's reproductive services, is debating introducing 'draconian' bills

A new front in the battle over abortion and reproductive rights has opened in North Dakota, where state lawmakers are holding hearings into a series of draconian anti-abortion bills.

The state, one of four in the US with only one abortion clinic, has already been rated as one of the worst for access to women's reproductive services, according to a report by Naral Pro-Choice America published last month.

Among the measures introduced by five proposed bills in the state include: defining a "person" as a fertilised human egg; enforcing penalties on physicians who perform abortions after a foetal heartbeat is detected; restricting abortions to women only in the event of a threat to life; and criminalising physicians who perform them.

One of the bills proposed by North Dakota legislators is a copycat of a similar measure in Mississippi aimed at shutting down its only abortion clinic and making Mississippi the first state in the nation to be abortion-free. That bill, which requires a doctor performing abortions to be an obstetrician-gynecologist (ob-gyn) with admitting privileges, was passed in Mississippi, but is the subject of a federal legal challenge by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Jackson Women's Health Organisation, the clinic's owner.

Pro-choice activists nationally described the North Dakota proposals as extreme, unconstitutional and "dangerous to women". At the hearings, on Tuesday and Wednesday, lawmakers were told the measures would endanger women in difficult pregnancies and would restrict IVF treatment.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO at the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), said: "Anti-choice politicians in North Dakota have undertaken an all-out assault on women's constitutionally protected rights, introducing not one, but five bills that would end safe and legal abortion in the state.

"Whether through tactics that outright ban abortion or backdoor efforts to block women's access to reproductive healthcare providers, the end result is the same: women will be gravely harmed."

Northup urged members of the legislative committees to reject the bills.

Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women's Network, who testified before the Senate judiciary committee, said that she believed the anti-abortion movement was targeting the state.

Stromme told the Guardian: "The majority of people speaking in support of the bills on Tuesday were from out of state, from national anti-abortion groups. We feel that they are trying to make our state a tool for their philosophy."

Among those testifying in support of the bills were the Family Research Council, Personhood USA and the Life League, she said.

Stromme argued that the proposed personhood amendment, which would ban abortions even in the case of rape or incest, was unlikely to succeed. "Every time they have been put on a ballot they have been defeated on a wide margin. It is beyond a waste of time. It is dangerous and also costly," she said.

If proposed bill SB2302 were passed, Stromme said, it would ban abortions except when a mother's life was at stake. It would also put pregnant mothers with complications at risk, citing an example of a woman pregnant with twins who have twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, which is life-threatening to the babies. Saving one twin is an option in such cases, she said, although there is no threat to the mother's life.

Those testifying against the bills included Rebecca Matthews – a woman whose twin babies died owing to complications of twin-to-twin transfusion, and who told the committee she believed such decisions were up to a woman and her doctor – and Alexis Grabinger, the daughter of a Democratic state senator who was conceived through IVF. Grabinger said she would not be alive had her mother not been able to produce multiple eggs for IVF. Some of the eggs were later destroyed, something that would be considered an abortion under one of the measures before the state house, Grabinger said.

Tammi Kromenaker, the director of North Dakota's only remaining abortion provider, the Red River Women's Clinic (RRWC), said if any of the bills pass, she would litigate against them. She told the Guardian: "I hope the politicians realise that all of these bills are unconstitutional and will set North Dakota back with hostile litigation which will go on for years and years."

She said the measures in SB2305, the copycat bill similar to the one being challenged by the CRR in Mississippi, were unnecessary, because the RRWC had a safety record above the national average. In the past 10 years, she said, they only had one hospital admission following a procedure, and that was for observation.

"They are all mimicking bills in other states where the intention is to shut down clinics," she said.

If the lawmakers succeeded in closing her clinic, which performs between 1,200 and 1,300 abortion a year, it could drive women to back street abortions, she said.

"Women of means who have the ability to travel to Minneapolis or South Dakota … those women will continue to have access to abortion services. Other women will be forced to continue pregnancies they don't want, or go back to what they did before Roe v Wade."

Three of the bills (SB 2302, SB 2303 and SB 4009) are aimed at defining a "person" as a fertilized human egg – measures that could not only ban all abortions, but also severely threaten some types of contraception and fertility treatments, such as IVF.

Resolution 4009, sponsored by Republican senator Margaret Sitte, proposes to amend North Dakota's constitution by adding "the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and defended."

Anti-abortion advocates and Republican lawmakers hope to put the amendment on a ballot in 2014, in the hope that a public vote could help persuade the US supreme court to overturn its Roe Vs Wade, ruling which gave women a constitutional right to abortion.

Anna Higgins, the director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, based in Washington, which supports the bill, said that it was not a strategic decision to testify before a state committee in North Dakota.

"North Dakota is not an isolated state in which pro-life bills have been proposed. Last year there were 46 measures passed, and in 2011 there were 70. We want to support the right to life for the unborn and we have a pro-life movement in all states."

Asked why she believed a personhood amendment in North Dakota would pass when so many others have failed at a public ballot, she said: "I don't know why it has failed in the past. Maybe it's a misunderstanding that it has been defeated."

© Guardian News and Media 2013