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North Dakota attorney general says doctors can use health info in defense of abortions, but questions remain

Democratic-NPL Reps. Karla Rose Hanson and Zac Ista asked North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley in August for an opinion addressing what they viewed as conflicts in state law that put pregnant women and medical providers in danger.

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North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley speaks to reporters in his office on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — Medical providers who perform abortions can divulge patients' personal health information to avoid prosecution under North Dakota's pending abortion ban, according to an opinion from Attorney General Drew Wrigley.

North Dakota's abortion ban, still held up in a legal battle, would make performing an abortion a Class C felony. However, doctors may abort a pregnancy if the mother's life is in danger and in cases of rape or incest, though a provider may still have to prove in court the procedure was justified.

Democratic-NPL Reps. Karla Rose Hanson of Fargo and Zac Ista of Grand Forks asked Wrigley in August for an opinion addressing what they viewed as conflicts in state law that put pregnant women and medical providers in danger.

The letter the lawmakers sent to the Republican attorney general asked him to weigh in on nine questions, including whether doctors could legally treat ectopic pregnancies and whether medical providers could be prosecuted for performing abortions in cases of rape or incest.

In his Tuesday, Nov. 15, opinion, Wrigley said he couldn't answer most of the questions posed by Hanson and Ista due to pending litigation surrounding the abortion ban. But Wrigley offered analysis on one query about disclosing private health information, saying "state and federal law do not preclude a defendant from disclosing a patient's (personal health information) in order to assert an affirmative defense."

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Karla Rose Hanson
Karla Rose Hanson.
Submitted photo

Hanson said women might see the disclosure of their health information in court as a violation of their privacy, noting that abortions performed in emergency situations can be very traumatic. The pro-abortion rights legislator said it's not surprising Wrigley didn't attempt to answer other salient questions about the state's abortion laws, but she would like doctors to have legal peace of mind if the ban takes effect.

"If and when the ban goes into effect, it will put women’s lives and doctors’ livelihoods at risk because we don’t have clarity between conflicting sections of law," Hanson said.

Prominent anti-abortion lawmakers and advocates previously told Forum News Service they are working with representatives of North Dakota’s medical field on legislation to reconcile differences in state law that some doctors say could hinder care for pregnant patients with life-threatening ailments.

A Bismarck judge has maintained a block on the state's abortion ban for several months, but the North Dakota Supreme Court will hear arguments later this month on the issue. The Red River Women's Clinic, which is suing the state of North Dakota over the ban, moved its operation to Moorhead, just across the border in Minnesota, in August. The clinic had been North Dakota's sole abortion provider.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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