North Dakota's new "personhood" law, which made it halfway through the legislative process on Tuesday, may no longer be the reproductive folly du jour, but it's still preoccupying me. Why would my home state even consider such a silly law - one that, much like Colorado's failed Proposition 48 last fall, could criminalize not just abortion but also most forms of birth control, IVF, and even normal miscarriage and menstruation? How the heck did this happen?
My husband said to me, "Curb your patriotism." But it's not just loyalty that's got me wondering. North Dakotans are churchgoing and God-fearing, yes; but they're also deeply pragmatic. Or at least they used to be when I lived there.
That's not just childish nostalgia speaking, by the way. Not even the abortion controversy has historically negated North Dakotan's basic pragmatism. Faye Ginsburg's wonderful ethnography, Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community looked at activists on both (or actually, all!) sides of the issue in Fargo during the 1980s. While she found plenty of drama and conflict, she also found that activists of all stripes shared a basic set of values regarding family and women as nurturers.
Perhaps the growing season in North Dakota is just too short for extremism to thrive.
Leslie Unruh, you say? Nope. She belongs to South Dakota.
So what planet did HB 1576 come from? How did a bunch of part-time legislators dream up the idea of conferring legal personhood on fertilized eggs even prior to implantation? Because that's what the text of the bill does:
[F]or purposes of interpretation of the constitution and laws of North Dakota, it is the intent of the legislative assembly that an individual, a person, when the context indicates that a reference to an individual is intended, or a human being includes any organism with the genome of homo sapiens.If this language is eerily reminiscent of the Colorado referendum, that's because this is not an indigenous product of North Dakota. It's written and promoted by the same people who brought us the Colorado foolishness.
In other words, the Colorado referendum wasn't a one-off. It has spawned an apparently new tentacle of the pro-life movement, Personhood USA, whose ultimate aim is to pass "personhood" laws in as many states as possible, ultimately setting up a judicial confrontation with Roe v. Wade. Here's their call to arms:
The fight for life is raging nationwide right now like never before and we wish to thank you for your conscientious decision to support every preborn child's right to life. We are Personhood USA and our goal is simple: Together, we will glorify Jesus and then stop the dehumanizing of and destruction of preborn people.Personhood USA claims grassroots support, and I have no doubt that North Dakota has its fair share of pro-lifers (even if the North Dakota League for Life's website is pretty rinky-dink and years out of date). Here's how Personhood USA describes its campaign in North Dakota:
The organizers that got personhood on the ballot in Colorado, would like to help in North Dakota as well. By getting personhood on the ballot, we force the question that the pro-death side does not want to answer, "when does life begin"?
"North Dakotans have gotten used to cold temperatures like -44 degrees, but they haven't gotten used to child-killing. We applaud and support their efforts to protect every baby by love and by law," commented Cal Zastrow, who, along with his family, worked on the North Dakota bill on the grassroots level.Reading this, you might reasonably believe that Cal Zastrow is part of a burgeoning pro-life movement among North Dakotans. That's the implication, right? But Zastrow would be a mighty unusual name among all those grandchildren of Germans and Norwegians. So I couldn't resist googling Cal Zastrow. He's from Michigan - two states over! No, Personhood USA didn't lie about this; it just used the term "grassroots" to insinuate. Here's how Michigan Citizens for Life describes him:
Cal Zastrow resides in Kawkawlin [Michigan] with his wife, Trish, where they homeschool their children. They are missionaries to the preborn who speak in churches, schools, and on the streets. Cal trains pro-life activists and conducts seminars to make the killing of preborn children unthinkable and unavailable through peaceful means.Ordinarily I include links to groups like this just for substantiation, not because I think you need to waste any time going there, but Cal Zastrow has a such a dorky, douchey picture that he's worth a visit if you're in a snarky mood. Also, maybe you'll discover WTF it means to be a missionary to the preborn. I'm still mystified.
So the success of the personhood bill in North Dakota depended crucially on the work of a provocateur from out of state.
I have to admit, though, that the bill's sponsor, Dan Ruby, is a completely homegrown zealot who claimed "This language is not as aggressive as the direct ban legislation that I've proposed in the past." Nor can I claim that the 51 legislators who voted for the bill (against 41 opponents) were bussed in from out of state.
What are the prospect for this bill actually becoming law? According to Kay Steiger at RH Reality Check, the bill's introduction caught Planned Parenthood - the only pro-choice group with any presence in North Dakota - by surprise. That surely won't still be the case when it comes before the state senate in a few weeks. At that point, Tim Stanley, senior director of government and public affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, hopes for a better outcome:
The personhood bill will go on to the state Senate by the end of the week, and Stanley says it is likely not to be voted on until the end of the legislature's session, in April. Stanley believes that ultimately North Dakotans may not want to draw national attention with a challenge to Roe. If the bill does pass, Planned Parenthood's affiliate will begin reaching out to the medical and religious community to begin building a coalition of support to fight the measure.See, North Dakota doesn't just have the prettier badlands, it also has a more level-headed legislature than South Dakota. And again - Dan Ruby is no Leslee Unruh! I'm hoping the state senate is rational enough to realize how ruinous it would be to litigate the "personhood bill" all the way to the Supreme Court, as required by the bill's second paragraph.
"My experience had been that this legislature is grounded in reality, as opposed to some other legislatures," Stanley said. "South Dakota is not the most rational legislature when it comes to this kind of stuff. They're known as being slightly out there and willing to take those high-profile risks to fight this fight. My feeling is that North Dakota is just slightly more reticent to do that. To their credit they're not a state that looks [for] and seeks undue attention."
(Source: RH Reality Check)
But even assuming this bill dies before the tulips are blooming in Bismarck, Personhood USA won't stop its quest. According the the American Life League, similar "personhood" legislation is pending in 15 other states. Even if there's good reason to be relatively sanguine about the North Dakota state senate stopping this foolish bill, odds are good that it will pass somehow, somewhere, and ultimately land in the laps of the SCOTUS.
Another ominous aspect of this: the "personhood" movement is trying to shift the discourse. To some extent, they're already succeeding. Just look at how RH Reality Check and I are both repeatedly referring to the bill and the movement within their frame: "personhood." Repeat it often enough, and people may start believing that a fertilized egg is indeed a person.