Forty years after Roe v. Wade, a growing number of abortion foes say they are tired of waiting.
Exposing a rift in the pro-life camp, Republican-dominated state governments in Arkansas and North Dakota have pressed forward with legislation imposing the nation’s toughest restrictions on abortion, all but inviting a courtroom confrontation taking on the 1973 Supreme Court decision.
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, signed into law his state’s “heartbeat” bill greatly restricting abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected. He said lawmakers had the right to “discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade” and immediately asked the legislature to set aside money for the inevitable legal battle.
After four decades of Roe and 55 million abortions, the strategy of incrementalism — chipping away slowly but steadily at abortion rights — has become anathema to some pro-lifers. But far-reaching “personhood” and “heartbeat” laws in states also are opposed by such establishment pro-life groups as the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life. They warn that moving before the legal and political ground are prepared would simply hand the Supreme Court another chance to uphold Roe.
North Dakota’s heartbeat law is “not going to prevent a single abortion from happening, it’s not going to go into effect, and it’s not going to go to the Supreme Court,” lawyer and pro-life supporter Paul Linton told Forum News Service.
But Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life, argued that the go-slow approach needed an overhaul.
“Talk about a paradigm shift! North Dakota is completely shattering the prevailing wisdom in some pro-life circles that moderation and ‘compromise’ are the only path to victory,” Mr. Becker wrote on his organization’s website.
Officials at Americans United for Life praised North Dakota lawmakers for enacting the first law banning most abortions on the basis of gender or genetic abnormality of the fetus. “A civil society does not discriminate against people — born or unborn — for their sex or for disability,” said the organization’s chairwoman, Charmaine Yoest. But the group said nothing last week about passage of the heartbeat measure.
In North Dakota, pro-life allies passed a trio of abortion measures.
These bills “did not happen overnight” said Janne Myrdal, director of the North Dakota chapter of Concerned Women for America. In the end, she said, “we went forward, completely unified, supporting all these bills this time around. I think the lawmakers felt the strength of that.”
Incrementalists already are feeling the legal blowback they fear.
“We will not allow this frontal assault on fundamental reproductive rights to go unchallenged,” said Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
In Idaho, a federal judge recently struck down a law that banned most abortions after 20 weeks, saying it placed an undue burden on a woman’s constitutionally protected right to abortion.
In Arkansas, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arkansas have promised to challenge that state’s heartbeat law in federal court. In North Dakota, the Center for Reproductive Rights has said it will file a lawsuit against that state’s heartbeat law on behalf the Red River Women’s Clinic, the state’s only abortion clinic, before the law takes effect Aug. 1.
Heather Smith, spokeswoman for ACLU chapters in South Dakota and North Dakota, said Friday that “all the options are on the table” regarding North Dakota’s abortion laws. “We’re all strategizing.”
Cost of compromise
Bishop David Kagan of the Catholic Diocese of Bismarck, N.D., praised the more aggressive laws against abortion. “The protection of all human life from the moment of conception to natural death is the primary purpose of government,” said the prelate, who is also the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Fargo.
But Mr. Linton has argued that “purist” pro-life measures — when pursued “at the expense of incremental advances” in abortion law and policy — can bring only costly defeats to the pro-life movement. Such legislation “will do little or nothing to end abortion,” he wrote, predicting that the effort will reap for pro-life activists “a harvest of bitterness.”Countered Mr. Becker: North Dakota “proves that we don’t have to accept watered-down, partial victories which only ensure that some innocent lives will still be sacrificed on the altar of compromise.”
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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