Last week, North Dakota’s Senate defeated legislation that would have defined
a fertilized egg as a person. It was a win for the pro-choice movement,
but perhaps what was most surprising was not that the legislation
was defeated – the personhood movement is considered extreme even within
the anti-choice movement – but how it was defeated.
When the House first considered the bill, Planned
Parenthood represented itself in the House Committee hearing on the
proposed legislation, known as HB 1572. Tim Stanley, senior director
of government and public affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North
Dakota, South Dakota, testified after 90 minutes of anti-choice rants
that the passage of such legislation would be expensive, unconstitutional,
By the time the bill had been
revised and the State Senate held a hearing on the issue, some things
had changed. The Catholic bishops in state put up some soft resistance,
releasing a statement that said, "We agree with the goal of establishing
the full legal recognition of the right to life of every unborn child
from the moment of conception and will never waver from that objective
…While opinions can vary, it is apparent to us that HB 1572, as written,
raises many unanswered questions, could lead to unintended consequences
and injustices, and would not achieve the goal of providing a direct
challenge to Roe v. Wade and its progeny."
When even Catholics are opposing
the personhood bills, it is evident that there is division within
the anti-choice movement about the strategy. Still, Stanly thinks the
legislation was outrageous enough on its own. "Certainly the bill
would have been more difficult to defeat if the other mainline groups
had been involved in it," Stanley said, "but I think overall it
was the fact that this bill just went too far and got into areas they
just did not feel comfortable regulating."
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Then the state’s second-largest
paper, the Grand Forks Harold, which isn’t exactly known for
its liberalism, wrote an editorial opposing HB 1572. The headline read,
"‘Personhood’ bill in N.D. goes much too far." The largest paper
in the state, the Fargo Forum, ran a reported
article that pointed
out many questions raised by the proposed legislation.
The Senate hearing, according
to Stanley, was very different than the initial hearing on the bill
in the State House. This time, Planned Parenthood representatives didn’t
even testify. Instead, they called in an in vitro specialist, a constitutional
lawyer, and a religious leader to oppose the bill. In other words, the
arguments about the bill didn’t even include defending the right to
abortion or abortion access. "We really stayed away from it, just
really feeling like our best arguments to defeat this thing were not
necessarily about abortion," Stanley said.
Ultimately, the strategy of
PPMNS was effective. The North Dakota personhood bill was defeated, 29-16, after getting a 5-0 recommendation
from the Senate Judiciary Committee of "do not pass."
Immediately following the vote
on HB 1572, however, the legislature passed, by voice vote, a resolution
not to adhere any future Freedom of Choice Act legislation that Congress might pass. Such FOCA legislation hasn’t even been introduced into
this session of Congress.
Ultimately, North Dakota is
in limbo. They’re not willing to take a stand to challenge
Roe v. Wade by passing personhood legislation, but they are completely
unwilling to see access to abortion codified by the federal government.
They’re a socially conservative state that is eager to limit abortion
access in a number of ways. After all, North Dakota only has one abortion
clinic, located in Fargo, at the eastern border of the state.
State legislators have also introduced a
slew of anti-choice legislation this session : a bill that would require a doctor
to read to a woman seeking an abortion that she will terminate "the
life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being"; a bill that
gives women the "option" to view the fetus through an ultrasound
before terminating the pregnancy; requiring abortion clinics to post
signs that read, "NOTICE: No one can force you to have an abortion.
It is against the law for a spouse, a boyfriend, a parent, a friend,
a medical care provider, or any other person to in any way force you
to have an abortion"; and setting aside at least $100,000 for promoting
"alternatives-to-abortion" programs. Almost all of these pieces
of legislation are likely to pass and have been widely endorsed by the
anti-choice community, including the Catholic bishops.
The personhood movement, spearheaded
by the group Personhood USA, has outlined their definition of a fertilized
egg as a person as the new way forward, but what has historically proven more effective
is the incremental strategy the anti-choice movement has been
pushing for years. Even the arguments over whether or not to pass personhood
legislation didn’t focus on a woman’s right to abortion access,
but rather looked at the inability of women to access in vitro treatments
and the costs of defending such legislation in court.
What’s happening in North
Dakota is, in some ways, the opposite of the public conversation that resulted from the fight against the South Dakota abortion ban. In South
Dakota, the dialogue that emerged was about family health and keeping
health decisions between women and doctors. North Dakota is seeing “personhood”
legislation as complicating other aspects of reproductive health.
These arguments are, of course cheaper than launching an all-out public
information campaign, especially when many non-profits are strapped
for cash. And the strategy against HB 1572 was ultimately effective,
but it may have left pro-choice activists open to future attacks on