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Janell Cole, Published March 17 2009

Personhood bill’s effects in question

BISMARCK – Two Fargo fertility doctors said that if the proposed North Dakota legislation dubbed the “personhood” bill passes, it could curtail their practice and prevent other doctors from moving to the state.

Dr. Stephanie Dahl and Dr. Steffen Christensen of MeritCare were among the opponents testifying Monday against House Bill 1572, which would declare that the North Dakota Legislature’s intent is that the state constitution and all its laws would be assumed to have the word “person” include “any organism with the genome of homo sapiens,” including fertilized human eggs.

Several people also testified in favor of it in a hearing that lasted more than two hours. Supporters came from as far away as Seattle, Denver and Missouri to ask the Senate to approve it. They included children and a young woman who said she was born at 22 weeks’ gestation.

If the bill were to become law, said Denver pro-life attorney Gualberto Garcia Jones, “in North Dakota there will be no second-class human beings.”

Sen. George Nodland, R-Dickinson, also testified in support.

“I think this is one of the most important decisions the (Senate) chamber will make,” he said.

The fertility doctors painted a picture of a practice in North Dakota in which state government keeps watch over what happens with human fertilized eggs.

“If House Bill 1572 is passed, who will be responsible for the abnormal embryos that (would then) have personhood status?” Dahl asked. They are currently discarded.

“Would there be a government representative present at every IVF procedure to confirm that the eggs fertilized abnormally?” Dahl asked.

She and Christensen questioned what the state would demand done with normal human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. Most are now frozen and responsibility for their fate left to the parents.

“One thing we don’t need in North Dakota is another ‘octomom,’ ” Christensen said, a reference to the California woman who recently gave birth to eight babies who were the result of implantation of six fertilized embryos.

Committee members questioned the bill sponsor, Rep. Dan Ruby, about the possible consequences of it becoming law.

Committee chairman Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown, a retired lawyer and senator since 1967, asked Ruby how the bill can expand or declare new constitutional rights without going to the voters.

The only way the state can amend the constitution is to have the whole state vote on it, and Ruby is not proposing that, he said.

“It goes into the definitions in the Century Code,” Ruby said.

Nething also wondered about the second section of the bill, which Ruby said will help ensure that if the law is challenged, the legislators’ meaning is not misconstrued by those defending it.

Section 2 says the Legislature could “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 act.”

Nething said it would be unprecedented for the Legislature to be “called into special session to name a legal counsel from among its members” to intervene in a court case.

Sen. Curt Olafson, R-Edinburg, and Sen. Tom Fiebiger, D-Fargo, both questioned Ruby and other supporters about how it is they believe the law wouldn’t create legal havoc for ectopic (tubal) pregnancies that have to be removed in order to save the mother’s life.

The committee took no immediate action. The House passed the bill last month.

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