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North Dakota steps into nation's abortion-fight spotlight

Now it's North Dakota's turn to be at the center of the abortion battle.

The state received that distinction late last month, when its House of Representatives passed House Bill 1572, which defines every fertilized egg as a human being. The bill, only a couple of paragraphs long, is similar to a constitutional amendment that was crushed by Colorado voters last fall. Its fate now rests in the hands of a conservative Senate, where a majority of members oppose abortion.

But "1572," as it's known across the state, may be seen as too extreme for even most abortion foes.

If "1572" passes the Senate and is signed by Republican Gov. John Hoeven, it almost certainly would end up in the courts — a test to Roe v. Wade, which appears to be its intent.

The bill, written by Rep. Dan Ruby, a Republican from Minot, with considerable help from the national organization Personhood USA, never uses the term "abortion." But it has brought pro-choice and anti-abortion organizations to Bismarck.

Rep. Dan Ruby
Rep. Dan Ruby

"We're doing everything we can to build coalitions (to oppose the bill)," said Tim Stanley, senior director of government and public affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. "We feel confident that the more people hear about 1572, the less comfortable they'll feel about it."

Planned Parenthood is pounding home the message that "1572" would have staggering unintended consequences beyond outlawing abortion in the state. Given the simplicity of the language, it would mean that a physician could not perform an abortion to protect the life of the mother. It would mean that a pregnant woman, diagnosed with cancer, could not receive treatments that would endanger the fetus.

It would, Stanley says, even create absurdities in the law. For example, under "1572" a pregnant woman in North Dakota would not be allowed to ride a bicycle, because North Dakota law prohibits two people riding on a bike built for one.

"It's written so broadly that it could impact other state laws and mire North Dakota in a legal quagmire for years to come," said Sullivan.

Meantime, Ruby, a four-term legislator, is the new darling of some in the anti-abortion movement.

"We thank Dan Ruby for his courage and for being actively pro-life," said Personhood USA's Keith Mason in a statement following the action of the North Dakota House. "This great family man with his wife and 10 children are an example to us all."

Ruby accepts this role with modesty. He does not, for example, claim "credit" for being the creator of the bill.

"I was asked to introduce the personhood bill by somebody that felt deeply that this personhood approach was the right way to give rights to people in all stages of development," he wrote in an email.

He sees abortion as a states' rights issue.

"The proposal could be more effective giving states back the right to decide the issue of abortion for themselves because it treats people equally," he wrote. "If that happens, states would certainly have the ability to decide when they allow for life to be taken, just as they do now for the death penalty and assisted suicide."

Rallying the anti-abortion troops has not been difficult. There were huge numbers of "1572" supporters when the bill was being heard by committee and when the full House voted on the bill.

Personhood USA also is rallying the troops and has done such things as list the names and home phone numbers of North Dakota senators on its web site, urging "1572" supporters to deluge the lawmakers with calls.  

Personhood USA is nothing if not zealous. Consider the organization's mission statement: "The prime mission of Personhood USA is to serve Jesus by being an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, pre-born child."

There's little room for political give-and-take in such a statement. And because of that, Personhood USA almost succeeds in creating strange bedfellows.  For example, not only is Planned Parenthood actively opposing the bill but Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) is doing nothing to support it.

"We're realists," said Scott Fischbach, MCCL's executive director. "We're not looking to make a statement; we want to make a difference.''

Fischbach noted that MCCL and several other "mainstream" anti-abortion organizations, actually opposed the anti-abortion legislation that South Dakota voters ultimately rejected in 2007 and 2008 after bitter, costly campaigns.

(So exhausting were those fights in South Dakota that its Legislature dealt with only two relatively small pieces of reproductive-rights legislation in its most recent session. A bill that would have required physicians to be in their offices, available for consultation, on the day before performing an abortion was defeated. A bill requiring insurance companies that pay for prescriptions to also pay for contraceptives  was defeated.)

Much as they oppose abortion, such groups as MCCL fear that attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade now might actually strengthen it. Given the makeup of the Supreme Court, they say, Roe v. Wade could be affirmed. 

"We can count to five," said Fischbach.

North Dakota's Ruby does not buy the timing argument.

"I have heard the timing is not right for a challenge," he wrote in an email, "but I don't envision it getting any better in the future. So now is as good a time as any."

In North Dakota, then, the big play for the whole abortion victory is unfolding — and it's loaded with passion and national implications.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, MCCL tries to chip away at total numbers of abortions and chip away at abortion rights with smaller pieces of legislation.

In this legislative session, for instance, MCCL is trying to get votes on a handful of bills that would restrict abortions or deal with life issues. Last week, two bills supported by MCCL were introduced at the Minnesota Capitol. One would prevent women from having an abortion simply based on the gender of the fetus. The second would ban human cloning, including embryonic clones for stem-cell research.

In Minnesota, where committee leaders, as well as House and Senate leaders, have control of what legislative measure are considered, even these proposals may never get a committee hearing. Fischbach does say they could be brought up as amendments to other bills on the floors of each chamber.

"We have a fighting majority in the House," said Fischbach, "but we need better numbers in the Senate.''

In North Dakota, the process is much more open to sweeping proposals such as "1572." ALL legislative proposals must get a committee hearing. Committees pass along all legislative proposal to the full bodies with one of three recommendations: do pass, don't pass or no position.

Interestingly, "1572"failed to win support of its House committee on a 7-6 vote, but with the House chamber packed with supporters, the full membership passed the bill, 51-41.

Similar leglislation is in the works in Alabama, South Carolina, Maryland and Montana. In fact, the Montana Senate passed virtually the same legislation as the North Dakota legislative proposal.

"The opposition is cocked and loaded," said Planned Parenthood's of "1572" supporters. "Our job now is to educate."

Said Ruby in his email, "We are asking for two simple acknowledgements. That human life begins when genetics can prove that the life is distinguishable from any other human person and that states should have the right to make their own laws as the founding fathers intended.''

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

"Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) is doing nothing to support it"

This is because MCCL is primarily interested in abortion as a political issue.

The Vatican just approved the excommunication of a mother who approved an abortion for her nine-year old daughter who was sexually molested and the excommunication of the doctor who performed the abortion. This bill clearly reflects the actual beliefs of the mainstream anti-abortion movement. The MCCL is ducking it because it exposes the real extremism of those views.

Opposition to abortion among conservatives is very similar to the practice of forcing women to cover themselves completely with the chardor among conservative muslims in arab countries. It is confusing cultural practice with religious belief.

Here is the Bible:

"the lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living
soul."

It seems quite clear that human life, including a human soul, was created only with the first breath. Nowhere does the bible proscribe abortion - Jesus never mentions it.

The fact is that safe, legal abortion is a modern gift from God to women. Conservatives reject it because it freed women to take their place as full partners in the world.

As I remember, before Roe v Wade, the University of Minnesota medical school did not admit married women. The reasoning was that since they were married, they were sexually active and might get pregnant since no form of birth control is 100% effective. It was assumed a pregnant woman would not be able to finish their medical training. Just the ability to choose an abortion was enough to open new opportunities to women.

The idea that young married couples can decide whether and when to have children is now commonplace. Most people use contraceptives to control that decision. But, without abortion as an option, that ability becomes qualified since no contraceptive is 100% effective. Instead, having a child becomes an immediate contingency one has to be prepared for regardless of ones "plan".

Perhaps the most disturbing development from Roe v Wade is the growth of "baby worship". It is the new idolatry, with signs all over the state with pictures of infants as "victims" of abortion. You could just as well put up a picture of anyone younger than 36 years old since abortion has been legal for 36 years.

Mr. Ruby, et al, believe that God provides each newly fertilized human egg with his/her immortal soul. Most of them also believe that the use of any method of "artificial" birth control is anti-life because it prevents possible fertilization.

Recall Galileo, who was excommunicated for the sin of believing that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun and that Earth was not the center of the universe. When science eventually proved otherwise, the Catholic church posthumously reversed his excommunication.

Since there is no way to prove scientifically when a fertilized human egg or embryo receives his/her soul, Ruby et al. are asking all others to adopt their belief and enshrine it into law no matter whether or not it makes any sense to them.

The Christian bible, and every other holy book, asks humans to hold life in reverence. None of them presumes to know as-yet-undiscovered scientific truths. And neither should our legal system.

Is this the same Dan Ruby who recently proposed to end all property taxes in North Dakota recently? This time around, personhood for fetuses?

I think Ruby is going to have a devil of a time either way. Or maybe he has a subliminal desire or devious scheme to increase the census count in N.D. By whatever means, ho?

Consider also (whatever one's support or denial or rejection of personal choice)...with this nation contemplating, discussing establishing; demanding all persons carry a photo I.D....go figure this one for the new "personhood" persons.

This is an idea which will self-distruct by its own fatal fallibility; for with all the attendant complications yet to be conceived surrounding the absurdites of such an idea,this "idea" will abort itself.