DENVER | The North Dakota Legislature is taking center stage in the abortion debate as it moves to define a fertilized human egg as a person — an effort viewed largely as a vehicle to challenge the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
The bill, which could be signed into law within weeks, is an outgrowth of the personhood movement, which has catapulted to the forefront of the pro-life pecking order in recent years with high-profile legislation and ballot measures.
"I think North Dakota will be on the map to be the first state in recent years to mount a legitimate challenge to Roe v. Wade," state Rep. Dan Ruby, the Republican who sponsored the bill, told the Bismarck Tribune.
The House approved H.B. 1572 by a vote of 51-41, sending it to the Senate for a vote that could come as early as next week. Both houses are controlled by Republicans, and the governor, John Hoeven, is also a Republican.
"This is groundbreaking stuff for us in the pro-life movement," said Keith Mason, founder of Colorado-based PersonhoodUSA, the pro-life group that backed the bill.
At the heart of the personhood movement is a statement in the Roe v. Wade decision, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, stating that, "[if the] suggestion of personhood [of the fetus] is established, the case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment."
By defining "personhood" as the moment the egg is fertilized, advocates say they can mount a more effective and direct challenge to Roe. This year, five states — Alabama, Maryland, North Dakota, Montana and South Carolina — have introduced personhood legislation.
For Sarah Stoesz, president of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, whose jurisdiction includes North and South Dakota, the legislation is alarming. She argues that it could hamper access to birth control, in vitro fertilization and emergency contraception.
"HB 1572 is dangerous, far-reaching and allows the government, not women and families, to make critical decisions about health care," Ms. Stoesz said. "This bill is not representative of the majority of North Dakotans; it is merely another attempt by a narrow minority fixated on an agenda that most Americans simply don't support."
Last year, personhood ballot measures in Colorado and Montana were defeated, although supporters say the effort helped raise the movement's profile.
Oregon has launched a petition drive to place a personhood amendment on the 2010 ballot, and a similar effort is expected to begin shortly in Mississippi.
Conspicuously absent from the debate was North Dakota Right to Life, which neither supported nor opposed the bill. The nation's largest and best-known pro-life group, Right to Life has disagreed in some instances with the personhood movement over tactics and strategy.
Paul Maloney, executive director of North Dakota Right to Life, said he worried that the bill's wording may not measure up to legal scrutiny and added that he was consulting with the organization's attorneys before taking a position.
The North Dakota bill states: "For 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."
"It's always a good time to challenge Roe v. Wade. But you have to be intelligent about it," Mr. Maloney said. "The last thing you want to do is go with a poorly worded personhood bill, have it defeated and then destroy your chance of overturning Roe."
Mr. Mason acknowledged that the fear of defeat at the high court has made some pro-life advocates reluctant to pursue the strategy.
"It's true, we could lose. The fear is that someone like [Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg could create a superright to abortion," he said. "But if you look at pro-life victories like partial birth, we didn't win the first time around. … Pro-abortion activists have changed some of their tactics, which means we need to change ours."