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N. Dakota’s anti-abortion moves growing, drawing backlash

Sarah Stoesz of Planned Parenthood talked to MinnPost about the changes, including planned legislative action today.

North Dakota legislators recently passed laws that will ban most abortions in the state, beginning Aug. 1.

In the waning days of March, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed legislation enacting a series of measures that will ban most abortions in the state, beginning Aug. 1. The procedures will no longer be legal once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, typically at about six weeks or because of fetal genetic abnormalities.

That’s not all. In a move that threatens to stop doctors from providing even the few abortions that fall outside those parameters, the legislature and governor enacted a law requiring physicians who perform the procedures to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

A proposed constitutional amendment protecting “personhood” and defining it as something that starts at conception will go before that state’s voters in 2014. And the North Dakota legislature today is set to take up a measure restricting dealings with groups that provide abortions anywhere after the 20th week of pregnancy.

All but unnoticed by local news media: The barrage of bills is being felt in St. Paul, home of the administrative headquarters of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. As the largest reproductive health advocacy organization in the region, it will be affected directly by each of the measures and will play a prime role in efforts to roll back the restrictions.

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The group’s president and CEO, Sarah Stoesz, talked to MinnPost about the changes. An edited transcript of that interview follows:   

stoesz portrait
Sarah Stoesz

MinnPost: Can you talk about the impact of the North Dakota legislation?

Sarah Stoesz: The impact of the North Dakota legislation so far has been to encourage widespread anger and outrage toward the legislature and toward the governor, toward their dramatic intrusion into the personal and private decision-making of women and families. People in North Dakota may be conservative, but they don’t want government coming into their family life and making decisions for them. 

We have seen this spontaneous outburst of grass-roots activity and protesting in North Dakota like never before. For example, a few days ago, there were rallies in Fargo, Minot, Bismarck — and this is just not the sort of thing that happens in North Dakota, generally. It’s not the sort of state where people engage in that kind of political expression. Not to mention political expression on the question of abortion.

The precursor story: We applied with North Dakota State University (NDSU) for a grant, $1.2 million dollars from the feds, to provide sex education in Fargo to some of the most vulnerable kids in the state, kids who are homeless and in foster care. These are kids who have a 50 percent chance of becoming parents by the time they age out of the system and become adults.

They’re kids who really aren’t well-equipped to be parents. They don’t come from intact families, they’re homeless and we wanted to help them, at least with that part of their lives. And so the federal government made this grant. It went to NDSU, which is obviously a state entity, and then to us.

At the prodding of members of the Catholic Conference in North Dakota, some legislators questioned NDSU and pushed them, saying that the state should not be contracting with an organization that provided abortion, even though we don’t provide abortions in North Dakota. But in any event, the president of the university went on conservative talk radio and announced to the university and the world that he was freezing this plan.

What happened in the intervening weeks was quite remarkable. The faculty was outraged. They organized numerous meetings. They organized faculty around the country, who spoke out to defend this grant, and it spilled over in the general public. There were many letters to the editor, there was a lot of public discussion and ultimately we asked the [state] attorney general for an opinion about this. The attorney general said, “No, you can’t freeze this grant,” and so we’re back in business now.

But early on in the legislative session there were the beginnings of some real grass-roots activity beginning to be expressed related to Planned Parenthood and reproductive health. So when these abortion bills came along and they sought to out-Arkansas Arkansas — Arkansas had an eight-week ban, and now North Dakota had the six-week abortion ban, called the fetal heartbeat bill — people were already a little bit riled up on that subject.

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The voice of sensible North Dakota has been largely drowned out of the majority in the legislature, and people who are very extreme on this issue are in charge. And they’re also people who lack legislative experience, so they were researching what to put in these bills on the Internet, looking at Wikipedia and so on. Other national groups have gotten involved. And I can’t explain the governor’s signing of these bills. It’s very unfortunate. Really, with one swipe of his pen, he compromised the health and well-being of North Dakota women and families.

MP: If you are not providing abortions in North Dakota, is anyone?

SS: There’s an independent clinic in North Dakota that provides abortions. Last year they provided 1,247, so not very many. We cooperate with them though, and in fact one of our doctors goes to North Dakota and works in that clinic. That clinic has the same situation that we have in South Dakota, which is that there aren’t enough state-based doctors who will work in the clinic so we have to bring doctors in to help women. [And] we have a clinic in Moorhead that is just really a stone’s throw from the border, right there in the Fargo-Moorhead metropolitan area. About half of our patients at that clinic are from North Dakota.

We don’t provide abortion [there], but we do provide a full range of basic women’s primary and preventive health care. Our role in North Dakota, in addition to providing this education work with NDSU, has been largely to help organize the advocacy work that has been done now for the last 10 years.

MP: Is that advocacy work compromised by the new law?

SS: No, not at all. In fact, the advocacy work is being enhanced by the new law. I would vastly prefer that these laws not have been passed. But now that they have been, we will be able to harness the energy being expressed quite spontaneously by North Dakota from border to border and turn it into more effective advocacy into the future.

The other thing that you should know is that the [North Dakota] legislature also passed a bill putting the so-called personhood issue on the ballot in 2014 as a constitutional amendment, and it would define personhood as starting with fertilization. So we will be fighting that at the ballot box in 2014.

Now, this personhood initiative has been defeated three times in Colorado by margins of over 20 percent and also defeated in Mississippi, most recently. Colorado is maybe somewhat more liberal than North Dakota. Mississippi, however, is quite similar in its conservative makeup and its religious makeup to North Dakota, and the voters there rejected personhood very, very strongly.

I imagine that what is going to happen over the next year and a half is that the people of North Dakota are going to have an opportunity to have some serious and thoughtful discussions about the meaning of personhood and when life begins and so on. And at the end of that period of time, they will reject that constitutional amendment as well. As a result of all of that and the result of what has occurred around the attempted stifling of the NDSU-Planned Parenthood collaboration on sex education and these other three bills now that have been passed and signed into law, we will have a much stronger basic movement for reproductive health than we currently do in North Dakota.

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MP: Is there any basis for a legal challenge?

SS: Oh, yes, there’s quite bit and there surely will be one. There’s no question about that, so that will occur simultaneously. One of the bills, for example, is a bill that requires admitting privileges for doctors performing abortions, and that’s very problematic. Our patients rarely need hospital admission. Abortion is an extraordinarily safe procedure. Hospitalizations just are not, by and large, ever needed.

But if a hospital has a rule that a physician cannot get admitting privileges unless they admit a minimum of 10 patients a year, and their clinic doesn’t send 10 patients a year to the hospital, there’s no way for the physician to get admitting privileges. So this is a de facto way of closing the clinic. So that will be litigated. And genetic abnormality bills will also be litigated.

MP: Tell us about the 20-week ban North Dakota lawmakers are expected to take up today.

SS: Yes. Just to close a loop on this NDSU thing: After all this outrage on the part of the faculty and on the part of the people of North Dakota around the attempted cutting of the grant, and after the Attorney General told them they couldn’t do it, the legislators in the house, without any hearing or public testimony, slipped an amendment into yet another anti-abortion bill, which is a 20-week ban.

That would create a law such that no state money could be passed through to entities that either perform or refer on abortion. Even though we don’t perform abortions, we certainly do refer in North Dakota. So the legislature does not want to accept the current status, which is that the federal government has made a lot of money available to help the most vulnerable teens in the state avoid pregnancy.

MP: How many teens would that program support?

SS: About 300 to 400 over the course of the three-year grant. There’s a whole evaluation component in this grant, and it’s a really wonderful thing. Not only are we going to provide services, but the NDSU professors are participating in the program’s design and evaluation, so we’re going to learn something that will be valuable in helping other teenagers around the country. It’s a really good thing.

And you know, not to show my irritation with this, but no one else in the state is helping these kids. It’s not like they have anywhere else to go. They don’t. 

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Bison sculpture photo by Flickr user Gerard Stolk (marche vers Pâques ) and used under Creative Commons License.