FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota lawmakers who approved what would be some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the U.S. are now considering outlawing all abortions.
The "personhood" measures would ban abortions by defining human life as beginning with conception. It's drawing opposition from some doctors who say it could cause problems for infertile couples seeking to use in vitro fertilization to conceive, but supporters insist that's addressed in the legislation.
The state Senate passed two personhood measures last month, and the House could vote as soon as Tuesday. One of the bills would make the proposal a state law and another is a resolution that would put the definition into the state constitution, if passed by voters.
North Dakota is one of several states with Republican-controlled Legislatures and GOP governors that is looking at abortion restrictions, but the state is could go further than any other in challenging the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision that legalized abortion.
Last week, the Legislature sent Gov. Jack Dalrymple what would be two of the most restrictive abortion laws in the U.S., banning abortions as early as six weeks in a pregnancy and on the basis of genetic defects such as Down syndrome. North Dakota also would be the first to adopt a personhood law if that measure passes. Abortion-rights activists have vowed to fight the measures in court.
Dr. Stephanie Dahl, a Fargo infertility specialist, said Monday that the personhood measures could ban in vitro fertilization and force doctors to leave the state rather than face health care restrictions or possible criminal penalties. In vitro fertilization, or IVF, involves mixing egg and sperm in a laboratory dish and transferring resulting embryos into the womb.
"This is something that would affect the patient and doctor relationship," Dahl said at a news conference with a group of doctors who oppose the measures. "That's somewhere we want to keep the government out of."
One of the key players in the anti-abortion campaign, state Sen. Margaret Sitte, a Republican from Bismarck, said she was "floored" by the assertions about limitations on in vitro fertilization. She said the proposals allow exceptions for the "screening, collecting, preparing, transferring, or cryopreserving a human being created through in vitro fertilization for the purpose of being transferred to a human uterus." Sitte said that clause was crafted with Dahl's help.
But Dr. Steffen Christensen, who founded an in vitro fertilization clinic in Fargo 19 years ago, said he can't put himself or his workers at risk of legal action.
"The concern is that this is criminal negligence if anything should happen to an embryo," he said.
Gualberto Garcia Jones, an attorney for Personhood USA, noted that two doctors in the Senate – Fargo Republican Spencer Berry and Bismarck Republican Ralph Kilzer – voted for the proposals. "Clearly they would not vote to criminalize themselves," Jones said in a phone interview.
Opponents also noted that the North Dakota Medical Association is against the bill and a group of 26 students from the University of North Dakota medical school signed a letter to the state Senate against it.
Dr. Ted Kleiman, a Fargo pediatrician, said the law would set North Dakota back to "the stone age" of medicine.
"This is abhorrent in the highest degree," he said.
Efforts to pass personhood legislation in other states have failed. In Oklahoma, a measure this year that would have granted human embryos "all the rights, privileges and immunities available to other persons," was not given a hearing in a House committee and appears to be shelved for the legislative session.
North Dakota lawmakers are considering several bills this session that would restrict abortion. Dahl said that the legislation would ultimately impact medical care to women and families and allow no exceptions for rape or incest.
"A woman who has been sexually assaulted will be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, regardless of the nature of her assault," she said.
Sitte said she doesn't think women should abort pregnancies resulting from rape.
"Rape is a horrible crime. It is absolutely devastating," Sitte said. "But do we believe in capital punishment for those children?"