By Brendan O'Brien
(Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked North Dakota's new abortion law, the most restrictive in the country because it prohibits ending a pregnancy once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks after conception.
Banning abortions as early as six weeks, or before fetal viability between 24 and 26 weeks of gestation, would bar nearly 90 percent of the abortions performed at the Red River Women's Clinic, the state's only abortion clinic, said its director, Tammi Kromenaker.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland, in granting a preliminary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by the clinic, wrote that the new law "is clearly an invalid and unconstitutional law based on the United States Supreme Court precedent in Roe v. Wade from 1973."
The law was to go into effect August 1.
In its lawsuit, Red River Women's Clinic had claimed the measure violates the U.S. Constitution and places the health of women in danger.
"We are very pleased," said Kromenaker. "The U.S. Supreme Court has said time and time again that you cannot ban abortion prior to viability."
Were the law to go into effect, the clinic would be forced to close, she added. The closest alternative clinics are 250 miles away in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The law, approved in March, is among a host of restrictions on abortion passed this year by Republican-led state legislatures across the United States.
North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, a Republican in a state where the party also controls the legislature, said in March that it was not clear if the law would be constitutional but that money should be provided by the state to defend it.
A dozen states have approved bans on most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but none have approved restrictions as strong as the ones enacted by North Dakota and Arkansas.
In March, Arkansas banned most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy. A federal judge blocked the law in May, at least temporarily.
(Reporting By Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Philip Barbara)