BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota lawmakers began building a war chest Wednesday to defend against any lawsuits that arise from new state laws imposing the nation's toughest abortion restrictions.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to support a request by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for a $400,000 budget increase for a legal fight promised by abortion-rights activists.
"The $400,000 is just my best estimate," Stenehjem told The Associated Press Wednesday. "It' could be more; it could be less."
Stenehjem said he came up with the estimate after speaking with attorneys generals in other states that have faced similar lawsuits.
North Dakota's Senate and House still must approve the budget amendment that also includes $10 million for additional law enforcement to address skyrocketing crime stemming from increased population in the state's booming oil patch.
Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed abortion bills last month that would make North Dakota the most restrictive state in the nation to get the procedure. One measure would ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, when a fetal heartbeat can first be detected. Another would prohibit women from having an abortion because a fetus has a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome.
A third measure would require a doctor who performs abortions to be a physician with hospital-admitting privileges.
In signing the bills, Dalrymple urged the Legislature to set aside money for a "litigation fund" that would allow the state's attorney general to defend the measure against lawsuits.
Abortion-rights advocates say the measures are an attempt to close the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo — the state's sole abortion clinic. Supporters of the so-called fetal heartbeat measure, including Dalrymple, say it's a challenge 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.
The North Dakota measures are slated to take effect Aug. 1 and abortion rights advocates have promised a legal fight to block the restrictions.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger said his office received requests last week for petitions to give voters an opportunity to repeal North Dakota's new abortion laws.
Jaeger's office has until April 11 to approve titles for the three petitions, and each needs at least 13,452 valid signatures from North Dakota voters to qualify for a statewide vote. The deadline to gather the signatures is June 24.
Attorney General Stenehjem said if voters repeal the abortion legislation "there won't be a lawsuit because there won't be the laws."
If a lawsuit moves forward, lawyers from his office would defend the legislation or outside attorneys could be hired.
New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights has said it is committed to challenging the fetal heartbeat bill on behalf of the Fargo clinic. The group already represented the clinic for free in a lawsuit over a 2011 law banning the widely accepted use of a medication that induces abortion. A judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of the law, and a trial is slated next week in Fargo.
The state has spent about $23,000 in legal costs to date defending the 2011 legislation, according to agency records obtained by the AP.
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