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Janell Cole, Published March 13 2009

Bishops seek North Dakota HB 1572 changes

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s Roman Catholic bishops are seeking wholesale changes to the Legislature’s controversial personhood bill, saying it could “lead to unintended consequences and injustices.”

As it stands, House Bill 1572 also wouldn’t challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, as its sponsor seeks, Fargo Diocese Bishop Samuel Aquila and Bismarck Diocese Bishop Paul Zipfel said in a joint statement Thursday.

They suggest changing it to a statement of legislative intent. They said they want to “remedy perceived problems with the bill’s current language.”

But HB 1572’s sponsor, Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, opposes the changes and wants the bill left alone.

“I still prefer my bill,” he said Thursday. “I think this (proposed change) actually muddies up the intent of the bill.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear the bill at 9 a.m. Monday. It passed the House in February.

In legislative parlance, the bishops’ proposed changes are a “hoghouse amendment,” a term meaning the entire bill is replaced with new language.

The bishops support the bill concept, but, after consulting with legal experts, pro-life groups, ethicists and other Catholic officials, they said, “It is very apparent to us that HB 1572 as written raises many unanswered questions, could lead to unintended consequences and injustices and would not achieve the goal of providing a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and its progeny.”

Ruby said he received a list of concerns from the North Dakota Catholic Conference, the collective name of the two dioceses, a few days ago but that they didn’t consult with him.

The bishops say their version is superior because it won’t commit the state solely to a “personhood” challenge to Roe v. Wade, which they said pro-life experts warn is a flawed strategy.

Their change would ensure the law avoids penalties for women, uses an unambiguous definition of a human being and would ensure that the law’s effect is limited to protecting innocent life rather than affecting laws on government programs, redistricting and taxes.

Their version also deletes “problematic language concerning interpretation of the state constitution. The state Legislature cannot dictate how the state constitution is interpreted.”

Ruby answered their issues in an e-mail he sent to all 47 senators Wednesday. He noted that his bill does not reference “personhood” at all and is irrelevant to penalties for women.

He opposes a “legislative intent” bill.

“Statements of legislative intent are useless. This (existing bill) is a definition. It has an operative legal effect. That’s what you want,” he wrote.

Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, which opposes the bill, declined to comment Thursday. Tim Stanley, executive director, said the group’s lawyer will have to review the bishops’ proposed changes.

The full text of House Bill 1572, as passed by the House

“For purposes of interpretation of the constitution and laws of North Dakota, it is the intent of the legislative assembly that an individual, person, when the context indicates that a reference to an individual is intended, or human being include any organism with the genome of homo sapiens.

“The legislative assembly, by joint resolution, may appoint one or more of its members, as a matter of right and in the legislative member’s official capacity, to intervene to defend this law in any case in which its constitutionality is challenged.”

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net