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Wendy Reuer, Published March 21 2013

NDSU officials say abortion ‘gag rule’ could stall research

FARGO – North Dakota State University officials – including President Dean Bresciani – said Thursday that an amendment passed by state lawmakers could stall medical research across the state.

The amendment added to Senate Bill 2368, approved by the House on Thursday, prohibits government funds to “contract with, or provide financial or other support to individuals, organizations, or entities performing, inducing, referring for, or counseling in favor of, abortions.”

A similar provision in federal law that’s no longer in place was often called the “gag rule.”

The amendment specifies the prohibition includes any “institution under the control of the State Board of Higher Education” –apparently aiming at a controversial $1.2 million federal grant given to NDSU researchers Molly Secor-Turner and Brandy Randall.

The grant will fund a sex education and adult life skills program the pair of researchers are planning in partnership with Planned Parenthood. NDSU officials temporarily froze the grant funding earlier this year citing potential legal issues. State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued an opinion last month saying the professors could legally accept the grant.

The latest amendment not only puts that program in jeopardy because of its link to Planned Parenthood, an abortion provider, it also jeopardizes other medical research, officials said.

However, Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, who sponsored the amendment, said it will do neither. Grande said the amendment was introduced as a way of simply updating the language of laws already on the books. She said it would not affect the NDSU program because, if passed, it would not go into effect until Aug. 1.

“There’s nothing in the language that says this is retroactive,” Grande said. “So if there is something currently in place, this doesn’t retroactively go back and take something away.”

Randall said Sanford Health, one of the state’s largest health care providers, partners with both NDSU and the University of North Dakota on medical research programs and training – partnerships that could be outlawed by the amendment.

“The long-term consequences of the amendment are mind-blowing,” she said.

Thomas Stone Carlson, president of NDSU’s Faculty Senate, said the amendment is an attack on academic freedom, and Bresciani agreed in a statement released Wednesday afternoon to media. In a message to the campus, he addressed the program and amendment specifically.

“The possible implications of such legislation go well beyond Dr. Secor-Turner’s and Dr. Randall’s research. Such legislation could potentially result in devastating consequences for much of the health related research taking place at both NDSU and UND,” Bresciani wrote. “In light of that and as a scholarly community, we have a responsibility to defend academic freedom and our state’s best interests, and we will continue to do so within allowable parameters.”

Grande said late Thursday that she does not believe the amendment would interfere with other partnerships and that critics are dealing in a realm of impossible hypotheticals.

“This does not deal with all medical issues,” Grande said.

Randall, Secor-Turner and Carlson joined Thursday with officials from Planned Parenthood and Fargo City Commissioner Mellissa Sobolik in a news conference to speak out against the “gag rule” and support the sex ed program.

Sobolik said the amendment’s passage would be detrimental to research and the state as a whole.

“We can’t let the vibrancy of North Dakota be stripped away by politicians who use cloak and dagger tactics,” she said.

Senate Bill 2368, including the amendment, is expected to be put a vote on the House floor today. If passed, the bill will return to a Senate Committee for review. SB 2368 would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks, except for medical emergencies.

The federal grant awarded for the sex ed program cannot be used for family planning services. It will aim to lower unplanned and teen pregnancy rates. The voluntary program will begin Thursday for Fargo-area teens ages 15 to 19 with parental permission.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530