North Dakota governor should veto abortion limits

Published 10:25 am Friday, March 22, 2013

After losing badly at the polls in Mississippi and Colorado, proponents of life-begins-at-conception measures kept shopping for new states that might not only pass a sweeping abortion ban but also conscript taxpayer dollars to fund proponents’ grander ambition — a legal challenge to Roe vs. Wade.

Unfortunately, they found an easy mark with money in oil-rich and socially conservative North Dakota.

It’s a good thing that Minnesota’s neighbor to the northwest is sitting atop $1.6 billion in reserves. North Dakota may need to dip into savings to foot the legal bills its legislators are bent on racking up as they lend support to controversial and likely unconstitutional new abortion restrictions that the state will have to defend if enacted.

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Two bills already have made it through both chambers at the Bismarck capitol and now await the signature of Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple. One would ban abortions on the basis of genetic defect or gender selection. Another would ban abortion before a woman potentially even knew she was pregnant — when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which could be as early as the five- or six-week mark, especially if a transvaginal ultrasound is used.

Four more bills, including two life-begins-at-conception or so-called “personhood” measures (which would ban nearly all abortions, without exception for rape or incest victims), are expected to be taken up by the North Dakota House this week.

One of the other two initiatives would ban most abortions after 20 weeks (about a month earlier than generally accepted guidelines). The remaining bill could close down the state’s one abortion provider by requiring its doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital — a concern because hospitals may have religious affiliations or have administrators who want their institution to steer clear of the charged politics of granting privileges to a clinic physician.

Both the severity of the restrictions and the quantity of them have garnered national headlines. While other states have considered or passed dramatic abortion laws — Arkansas recently banned most abortions from 12 weeks on — North Dakota stands out.

Dalrymple, a Republican, ought to veto them all if or when they arrive on his desk, though the state’s Republican legislative majorities may have enough votes to override him. The measures serve the interests of outside-the-mainstream antiabortion activists, but not the state’s.

The North Dakota Medical Association, which has stayed silent on previous battles over abortion limits, is officially opposing all six measures under consideration, warning that “unintended consequences of these bills would have a significantly negative impact on the doctor-patient relationship and the practice of medicine in general.’’

The organization is also concerned that the “personhood” initiatives, which could allow doctors to be prosecuted for murder for abortions, could make it difficult to recruit physicians to the rural, windswept state.

Polls consistently show that a solid majority of Americans occupy the middle ground on abortion — they find it problematic but are uncomfortable with wide-reaching restrictions. Dalrymple, and North Dakotans in general, should be outraged that the proposed restrictions reflect only the views of a vocal minority on this deeply personal issue. The certain, costly legal defense of these measures also raises serious questions about lawmakers’ stewardship of public resources.

As he contemplates signing the measures, Dalrymple would do well to study how a gubernatorial predecessor sensibly handled similar legislation. In 1991, then-Gov. George Sinner, a Democrat, vetoed a severely restrictive ban on abortions.

In a nine-page explanation, the governor wrote: “The opinions of thoughtful people, religious and secular, on this issue differ widely throughout history and in the present day. Given that unknown, government’s role must clearly be restrained.’’


—Minneapolis Star Tribune