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.
“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.