North Dakota’s ‘Personhood’: Unconstitutional and Contagious?

A proposed state amendment to define a fertilized egg as a human being is only one reproductive-rights roadblock rolling out of North Dakota.

Portrait of a full-fledged human being, as defined by North Dakota’s proposed ‘Personhood’ constitutional amendment. (Illustration: Arthur’s Free Clipart)

Mar 27, 2013
Sara Benincasa is a blogger, comedian, and author of 'Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom.'

Every fertilized egg is sacred.

It may sound like a play on an old Monty Python sketch, but the precise second that any human sperm cell crosses the threshold and accepts an invitation to come inside for a cuddle with a human ovum, that resultant zygote will be considered a full-fledged human being in North Dakota—with all attendant rights (although very few of the responsibilities).

Thanks to a “personhood” measure proposed by lawmakers as an amendment to their state constitution, North Dakotans will have the opportunity to vote yes or no in November 2014 on whether a fertilized egg deserves all the same protections and privileges as any citizen of the United States.

“I’m hoping [the personhood amendment] will be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade,” said Senator Margaret Sitte, a Republican from Bismarck who sponsored the bill.

Because of that very Roe v. Wade decision, a 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, the procedure is technically not a crime in the United States, but don’t tell that to North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple.

Dalrymple and other North Dakota anti-choice advocates have spent a lot of time finding ways to make it more difficult for adults to obtain a medical procedure. Dalrymple and his cohorts achieved three big milestones Tuesday when the governor signed into law three bills restricting abortion.

Because of that very Roe v. Wade, a 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, the procedure is technically not a crime in the United States, but don’t tell that to North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple.

One of the bills bans performing abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Using the controversial transvaginal ultrasound, it is possible to hear a heartbeat at six weeks gestation. Fetal heartbeat laws are under consideration in several other states, such as Ohio and Kansas. Arkansas already passed one such law; it requires “only” an abdominal ultrasound (which generally detects a heartbeat at 12 weeks). 

A second North Dakota bill bans any abortion made on the basis of gender or genetic abnormalities.

Dalrymple’s third bill requires every abortion provider to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

“We’re extremely disappointed,” Jennifer Aulwes, communications director for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, tells TakePart. “This action by the governor essentially takes these very personal and complex decisions out of the hands of women and families and hands over control to politicians in the state who have no business interfering with the personal medical decision-making of women.”

The “admitting privileges” anti-choice strategy has been employed in other abortion battlegrounds, such as Mississippi, although that state’s law requiring abortion providers to be affiliated with local hospitals is currently being challenged in federal court.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota is home to only one women’s health clinic that provides abortions—in this case, Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo.

On Tuesday, the Red River clinic’s website proclaimed in bold red letters, “Abortion is STILL legal in the state of North Dakota—despite the signing of some bills today by the Governor. Red River Women’s Clinic is OPEN, available for appointments and LEGALLY performing abortions in the state of North Dakota.”

All of the clinic’s doctors are flown in from out of state in order to perform abortions.

 “These [restrictions] are absolutely unconstitutional and they will be litigated,” adds Planned Parenthood’s Aulwes.

A statement from Dalrymple seems to agree with Aulwes on the point of constitutionality:

Although the likelihood of this measure surviving a court challenge remains in question, this bill is nevertheless a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.

Constitutional or not, North Dakota’s restrictions and bid to ban all abortions are clear and present indications of how any one state can attempt to dictate reproductive rights for the entire country.

Do you think the nation will go as North Dakota goes on reproductive rights? Explain why or why not in COMMENTS.

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