On Tuesday, one body of North
Dakota’s state legislature voted, 51-41, not only to ban abortion,
but to define life as beginning at conception. Such a measure, considered
extreme even by pro-life standards, would have far-reaching consequences
on women’s health.
State Rep. Dan Ruby introduced
which declares that "for purposes of interpretation of the constitution
and laws of North Dakota, it is the intent of the legislative assembly
that an individual, a person, when the context indicates that a reference
to an individual is intended, or a human being includes any organism
with the genome of homo sapiens."
"It was at the bottom of
the calendar and we didn’t expect [the House] to get to it, so it
caught us a little bit by surprise," said Tim Stanley, senior director
of government and public affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North
Dakota, South Dakota. "This bill dangerous, far reaching, and allows
government — not women and families — to make critical decisions about
health care." Some state legislators have
saying the intent of the measure is not to ban abortion outright. However,
many legal experts agree that defining life as beginning at conception
would affect access to birth control and emergency contraception as
well as affect in vitro fertilization. "I’m not sure if this is naivete or if this is sincere," Stanley said. "The bottom
line is that our attorneys have looked at this and are extremely concerned."
The state’s legislature,
in a slightly more robust year for anti-choice legislation than usual,
will also be considering other anti-choice legislation this session.
Other bills under consideration would require the state’s only abortion
clinic to place signs outside declaring that no one can force a woman
to have an abortion, and legislation that would mimic South
Dakota’s "informed consent" legislation, a requirement that abortion providers must read a statement to women seeking abortion care stating that the procedure "will terminate the life of a whole, separate,
unique, living human being." The state legislature is also considering
a measure that would resolve not to adopt a Freedom of Choice Act. "It’s
a sort of anti-FOCA," Stanley said. But because it hasn’t been introduced
in Congress, "it’s a complete red herring."
Stanley hopes that these other,
"less extreme" measures that he believes will probably pass, will
be enough to "placate" the anti-choice community in North Dakota’s
legislature. Stanley also notes that his Planned Parenthood affiliate
has only been in active in the state’s legislature since 2007 and
is the only pro-choice group that advocates at the state’s legislature.
"The grassroots pro-life
base in North Dakota very vibrant," Stanley said. "This movement,
if it had more of a foundation, be it money or what have you, that they
would be a substantial group. And that I find fairly alarming." During
the panel hearing on the so-called personhood legislation, Stanley said
he followed more than 90 minutes of anti-choice testimony by five or
six anti-choice groups with a about six minutes of testimony pointing
out the unconstitutional nature of the legislation.
The personhood bill will go on to the
state Senate by the end of the week, and Stanley says it is likely not
to be voted on until the end of the legislature’s session, in April.
Stanley believes that ultimately North Dakotans may not want to draw national attention with a challenge to Roe. If the bill does pass, Planned Parenthood’s
affiliate will begin reaching out to the medical and religious community
to begin building a coalition of support to fight the measure.
"My experience had been that
this legislature is grounded in reality, as opposed to some other legislatures,"
Stanley said. "South Dakota is not the most rational legislature when
it comes to this kind of stuff. They’re known as being slightly out
there and willing to take those high-profile risks to fight this fight.
My feeling is that North Dakota is just slightly more reticent to do
that. To their credit they’re not a state that looks [for] and seeks
Egg-as-Person in Pro-Choice Maryland
A state legislator in Maryland
has proposed a similar measure. The state seems like a strange place
for such a measure; it has an overwhelmingly pro-choice legislature
and passed a law that codified Roe v. Wade in 1992. "It’s
public relations for them," said Wendy Royalty, public relations director
of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "There’s very little likelihood
of [the bill] passing at all."
Delegate Don Dwyer, a socially
conservative delegate who also introduced a ban on same-sex marriage
this week as well, introduced the legislation last week. The judiciary
committee will consider the legislation and the chairman, Delegate Joe
Vollario, is rated anti-choice by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. But Maryland’s
house has an overwhelming pro-choice majority, Royalty said, so it is
most likely that the bill will be killed in committee.
"Nobody wants to see a bill
like that get on the floor because all it does is waste everybody’s
time," Royalty said. "We’ve seen the anti-choice people introduce
bills that appear to be more reasonable, but this one will not be perceived
this way." Three other states have introduced similar "personhood"
measures: North Carolina, Montana, and Alabama.
The lesson we might draw from the pushes for personhood legislation in these two states is that it pays to have a legislature that views anti-choice bills as a waste of time. In North Dakota, a strong grassroots anti-choice lobby can go far with incremental legislation because the legislature is far more amenable to its cause — even if it’s hesitant to pass an all-out ban. While many resources aren’t devoted
to Midwestern states until direct attacks on Roe are presented, these states might have an easier
time fighting both incremental and more sweeping anti-choice legislation if a strong anti-choice grassroots
movement there didn’t make being an anti-choice legislator worthwhile.