North Dakota Lawmakers Send ‘Personhood’ Amendment to Voters

Voters in North Dakota, where lawmakers last week approved the earliest abortion ban of any U.S. state, will decide whether to amend their constitution with a so-called personhood measure that could end the procedure entirely.

The language voters will consider in November 2014 would establish that “the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” If approved, North Dakota would be the first state with a personhood amendment after Mississippi and Colorado voters spurned similar measures in recent years.

Members of the Republican-dominated legislature in Bismarck also passed a bill that may close the sole abortion clinic in the oil-rich state, the nation’s third-least populous.

“It’s a wonderful way for a state to display that it affirms human life,” said Senator Margaret Sitte, a Republican from Bismarck who sponsored the bill. “I’m hoping it will be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade,” the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

Backers say the personhood amendment will end the procedure in the state, with no exceptions for rape, incest or when a woman’s life or health is endangered. Opponents say it’s unconstitutional and could outlaw some forms of contraception and in-vitro fertilization.

Doctors Opposed

A. Michael Booth, president of the North Dakota Medical Association, testified that it was “a direct insertion of the state into the patient-physician relationship” and could impede end-of-life care and organ transplants.

Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which fights such laws in court, called North Dakota “the new U.S. capital of anti-abortion extremism.”

Those who voted for the measures said doing so was a duty.

“Let’s stand up for those who can’t speak,” Representative Alex Looysen, a Republican from Jamestown, said during the debate.

The clinic bill, if approved by Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple, would require doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles. Mississippi is on the verge of becoming the first U.S. state without a dedicated facility after lawmakers there passed a similar bill last year and a judge weighs its fate.

Catch 22

Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo has been North Dakota’s only clinic since 2001, with three doctors who come from other states, said Tammi Kromenaker, its director. Admitting privileges are usually granted only to physicians who admit a minimum number of patients, she said. Red River has sent only one to a hospital in the past decade, she said.

“It’s intended to impose impossible-to-meet guidelines,” Kromenaker said by telephone. “It basically hands the decision over whether abortion is legal in the state over to the hospitals.”

North Dakota women obtained 1,247 abortions in 2011, according to the state health department. Most, 87 percent, weren’t married and 57 percent already had at least one child.

The personhood measure passed the House 57-35 and has already been approved by the Senate. Dalrymple’s signature isn’t needed to put it before voters, said Jay Buringrud, director of legal services at the Legislative Council, a nonpartisan service agency for both chambers.

North Dakota is the latest state to test limits on when and how women can terminate pregnancies. Last week, lawmakers approved a ban on abortion as early as six weeks, the narrowest window of any U.S. state, and voted to become the first to bar terminations sought because of genetic abnormalities.

Those bills haven’t been sent to Dalrymple, said his spokesman, Jeff Zent. Both sides say he is likely to sign them, setting up a court battle.

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