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Martin Wishnatsky, Published March 18 2009

North Dakota Catholic bishops sell out the unborn once again

On Feb. 17, the North Dakota House of Representatives voted 51-41 in favor of House Bill 1572, which 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.”

Because it confers legal recognition as a person upon every human being from the moment of conception, this legislation is known as the “personhood” bill.

When the bill crossed over to the Senate for its consideration, the North Dakota Catholic bishops moved to block it.

Holding their fire until just a few days before the hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the two bishops appeared at a news conference in the state Capitol on March 12 to offer their “amendment” to emasculate the bill.

Although styled as an “amendment,” the bishops’ proposal actually completely replaces the language of the bill with their own innocuous and meaningless alternative.

It has always been the position of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, the legislative voice of the bishops, that any legislation that directly challenges Roe v. Wade is undesirable and lacks “the cardinal virtue of prudence.” This defeatist mentality is well-exemplified in the proposed “amendment.” After defining life as beginning at conception, the bill then makes this finding meaningless by exempting its application to any provisions in state law to the contrary.

One provision “to the contrary” is section 12.1-17.1-07 of the North Dakota Century Code, which permits the killing of an unborn child “under the supervision of a licensed physician to which the pregnant woman has consented.” The supposed pro-life bishops are careful to protect this provision of the Century Code from being affected by any “personhood” legislation.

The bishops’ intent is clear in their accompanying statement entitled “Concerns the proposed amendments to HB 1572 address.” First, they attack the concept of conferring legal personhood on unborn children, stating that this strategy is “flawed and has not been endorsed by other bishops.” Secondly, they declare their purpose to transform the bill into “a statement of legislative intent to guide legal interpretation rather than a mandate to revise application of existing laws.” In other words, a toothless law.

The bishops make it very clear that their “amendment” will not challenge Roe v. Wade in any way. They state that their version of HB 1572 is similar to a statute that already been approved by the U.S. Supreme Court as compatible with Roe v. Wade. As further proof of their intention not to challenge Roe v. Wade, they released a letter from law professor Robert A. Destro that was e-mailed to Christopher Dodson, general counsel for the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

The language of the “proposed rewrite,” states Destro, “is far superior to the language which appears in the current bill.” He applauds the bill because it will “operate within the existing parameters of federal constitutional law.” Finally he concludes: “If enacted as proposed, the legislation is constitutional, and, for that reason, would not, in my view, be a very inviting ‘target’ for a constitutional challenge.”

How Roe v. Wade could ever be overturned without a “constitutional challenge” is not explained by the learned professor.

In the 2003 legislative session, six years ago, the bishops opposed a bill to make abortion a felony in North Dakota. Speaking for himself and Bishop Samuel Aquila, Bishop Paul Zipfel testified before the House Human Services Committee that making abortion a felony is “inconsistent with what it means to respect life.” A more Orwellian statement is hard to imagine.

The bishops’ “amendment” works like an abortion machine to suck the life right out of HB 1572. It turns a strong piece of legislation into a meaningless statement of policy. And that is no accident. One thing the Catholic bishops of North Dakota have consistently protected from legislative attack throughout their tenures is that infamous Supreme court decision, Roe v. Wade. They will probably succeed again.


Wishnatsky is a long-time pro-life activist.