BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota didn’t set out to become the abortion debate’s new epicenter.
It happened by accident, after a legislative caucus that once vetted abortion bills languished, leaving lawmakers to propose a flurry of measures — some cribbed from Wikipedia — without roadblocks.
Long dismissed as cold and inconsequential, North Dakota is now trying to enact the toughest abortion restrictions in the nation. The newly oil-rich red state may soon find itself in a costly battle over legislation foes describe as blatantly unconstitutional.
“It had to happen some place,” said Sen. John Andrist, a Crosby Republican who has served in the Legislature for more than two decades.
“I’m from the group who hates voting on abortion issues and who don’t like to play God,” said Andrist, who describes himself as “moderately pro-life” and has voted for some but not all of the restrictions North Dakota has taken up this year. “But we have some strong-willed people in this state who do.”
Lawmakers on Friday took a step toward outlawing abortion altogether in the state by passing a so-called personhood resolution that says a fertilized egg has the same right to life as a person. The House’s approval sends the matter to voters, who will decide whether to add the wording to the state’s constitution in November 2014.
It’s one of several anti-abortion measures to pass the Legislature. Most are awaiting the signature of Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who hasn’t yet indicated whether he supports the laws. Even if he were to veto them, some could have the support for the Legislature to override him.
One bill would prohibit abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Another would make North Dakota the only state to prohibit women from having the procedure because a fetus has a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome.
Though similar proposals in other states have faced fierce opposition, almost all of the anti-abortion measures in North Dakota this year have passed with little debate and with overwhelming support. One Democrat, Sen. Connie Triplett, walked out of the Senate in a silent protest during debate last week on the genetic abnormalities bill, knowing her vote wouldn’t keep the measure from passing.
The only significant measure to fail so far was a second personhood bill debated Friday that would have automatically defined in state law that life begins at conception. Lawmakers worried the wording would jeopardize couples’ efforts to get pregnant using in vitro fertilization.
So why is this happening in North Dakota, and why now?
The answer lies in part with the disintegration of an anti-abortion caucus that used to take the lead on introducing bills aimed at the procedure. Longtime Sen. Tim Mathern, a Democrat from Fargo who once led the caucus, said the group favored a more gradual approach to ending abortion in the state, focusing on measures it thought would withstand legal challenges. Without the caucus, some of the Legislature’s most ardent abortion opponents are taking up the cause, introducing bills crafted by out-of-state organizations or from examples found on the Internet.
Mathern, a Roman Catholic, fears the approach could backfire in the courts and with the state’s residents.
“In the long term, no question, it hurts,” he said.
The caucus that once helped organize and streamline anti-abortion proposals didn’t formally go away. Mathern said it just “petered out little by little” in recent years, amid disagreements over what approach to take with legislation.
The group often whittled proposals down to just a few, if any, bills each session that had the backing of lawmakers and national anti-abortion groups.
“The problem was we could never get all the groups on the same page,” Bismarck Republican Sen. Margaret Sitte said.
Sitte introduced some of this year’s anti-abortion measures, including the “personhood” resolution. She said the idea came from her heart — with inspiration from former President Ronald Reagan and legal language lifted from an online encyclopedia.
“There was no grandiose plan,” Sitte said, adding that the template for the personhood resolution came from a quick web search. “It came from Wikipedia.”
Sitte and other abortion foes acknowledge they want to shut down North Dakota’s only abortion clinic, which is in Fargo, the state’s largest city. They also hope to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until a fetus is considered viable, usually around 22 to 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
Jordan Goldberg, state advocacy counsel for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, said the measures are backed by large anti-abortion organizations or smaller “fringe” groups.
“None of the bills originated in North Dakota. All the bills came from out of state, every single one of them,” Goldberg said.
Critics of North Dakota’s proposals say the state of about 700,000 residents is setting itself up for a costly legal battle that would be tough to win.
North Dakota is uniquely positioned to undertake an expensive legal fight. Fueled by the unprecedented oil bonanza in the western part of the state, North Dakota boasts a nearly $2 billion state budget surplus and has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.
Still, the record production that has thrust the state to the nation’s No. 2 oil producer behind Texas also has brought challenges, including more crime brought on by an exploding population and torn-up roads from increased traffic. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new housing construction and infrastructure improvements haven’t kept pace.
Rep. Kathy Hawken, a Republican from Fargo who supports legal abortion, said she believes most of the state’s residents would prefer to see lawmakers focus on other issues, such as taxes and education.
“This is not coming from here, from the people of our state. It’s coming from out of state,” she said of the anti-abortion legislation.
Hawken is among a bipartisan group of about 10 lawmakers who have urged Dalrymple to veto anti-abortion measures.
“We’re clearly not the brightest bulbs in the bunch if we take a legal medical procedure and try and make it illegal,” she said.