On Tuesday, voters here will decide the fate of a proposed amendment to the state constitution that has provoked excitement and fear among the combatants in the country’s never-ending abortion wars.
The ballot initiative known as Measure 1 — which would enshrine “the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development” — has attracted millions of dollars in contributions, as well as the involvement of one of the nation’s best-known conservative strategists.
From the start, Measure 1 was aimed squarely at ending abortion. “I’m hoping it will be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade,” the amendment’s chief sponsor in the North Dakota legislature declared last year. Leaders of the burgeoning personhood movement — who believe that establishing legal rights for the unborn is the key to overturning that 1973 decision — have made Measure 1’s passage a national priority.
Yet as the closely watched campaign over Measure 1 enters its final hours, what’s most striking is that almost no one advocating for or against it is talking about ending abortion anymore.
The measure’s supporters, including the Republican state senator who introduced it, now claim that it is little more than an effort to shore up the state’s existing restrictions on when and how women can end their pregnancies.
On a recent Sunday afternoon at the Fargo Moorhead Lutherans for Life Dessert Banquet, Janne Myrdal, a major figure in the state’s right-to-life efforts, sought to underscore the important, but more limited aims of the measure: preserving state requirements such as parental notification.
“If Measure 1 fails, all our abortion laws will be wiped out and gone,” she told supporters.
The measure’s opponents, aware that focusing on abortion rights is a losing game in this state, have sought to raise concerns about its implications for everything from contraception use to end-of-life care.
In downtown Fargo, women’s studies major Lexi Grabinger, who 19 years ago became the first surrogate baby born in North Dakota, was canvassing door to door. She fears that Measure 1 could force in-vitro fertilization doctors to close their doors. “My parents wouldn’t have been able to have me,” she said.
At the offices of North Dakotans Against Measure 1 — located a block from the state’s only remaining abortion clinic — campaign workers worked the phones, talking up an issue important to the state’s many older voters: end-of-life care. A hand-lettered sign summed up the argument that opponents hope will carry the day next Tuesday: “Well intentioned doesn’t mean well thought out.”
The battle over Measure 1 highlights the biggest trend in national abortion politics this November: wide-ranging pro-life ballot initiatives that would alter state constitutions in ways whose long-term repercussions are difficult to predict. In Colorado, voters will cast ballots on Amendment 67, another so-called personhood initiative that would include unborn human beings under the definition of “person” and “child” throughout the state’s criminal code. In Tennessee, Amendment 1 would eliminate all constitutional language protecting the right to abortion, allowing lawmakers to start passing the kinds of regulations and restrictions that have become commonplace not only in North Dakota but Texas and other states as well.
The stakes are potentially momentous yet hard to gauge, and that’s why abortion rights advocates are deeply worried. Planned Parenthood groups from across the country have poured almost $1.4 million into the North Dakota campaign.
The ND Choose Life campaign, meanwhile, is being run by Frank Schubert, the legendary Republican political consultant best known for his ballot campaigns to ban gay marriage, including California’s Prop. 8 (now overturned). The North Dakota Catholic Conference has donated more than $500,000 to passing Measure 1, and the state’s two conservative bishops have made campaign videos on YouTube and issued talking points to priests and parishes under their supervision.
One of Schubert’s encouragements to his troops is, “If you define the terms, odds are you’ll win the debate.”
The Measure 1 campaigns reflect the truth of that mantra — as well as lessons learned in other fights over the past eight years involving personhood measures pushed by anti-abortion activists, law groups, and religious leaders around the country. Personhood is controversial even among pro-lifers. But activists have been successful of late in compelling the right-to-life mainstream to take up their ideas and agenda, pressing on all fronts to codify the principle that an embryo is a person from the moment of conception.
Before this November, measures that advanced personhood had appeared on ballots in two states — Colorado (2008 and 2010) and Mississippi (2011). Weeks before the election in Mississippi, the measure seemed like a sure winner, but in the end, worries over the potential impact on IVF and some forms of birth control trumped whatever negative feelings about abortion that voters might have had.
Since then, personhood advocates have often sought to minimize the wider implications of declaring that embryos and fetuses have the same rights as the born. (This year’s personhood measure in Colorado, for example, paints itself as a narrow “fetal homicide” bill that would allow drunk drivers, domestic abusers and others who kill unborn children to be criminally prosecuted.) Reproductive rights advocates say that’s what is happening in North Dakota as well.
But Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference and a lawyer and lobbyist in Bismarck for 20 years, said Measure 1 was never going to threaten the federally protected right to abortion articulated in Roe and subsequent Supreme Court cases.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT