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Published April 04 2013

Forum editorial: A curious referral campaign

The intention of a truck driver and a libertarian to refer North Dakota’s recently signed abortion laws appears to be more bluster than substance. The reason behind referral of a law usually is disagreement with the law. In this case, Gary Hangsleben and Roland Riemers, both of Grand Forks, are on opposite ends of the pro-abortion rights/anti-abortion spectrum, yet they find common ground regarding referral of the laws. It’s a peculiarly contradictory campaign that seems to have more to do with their views of the role of legislatures and courts, rather than the efficacy of abortion laws.

But that’s OK. Any citizen can petition to refer a law for any reason. In this situation, however, referrals motivated by anything other than desire to overturn the laws can be counterproductive and can be characterized as an abuse of the process.

Secondly, the laws most certainly will be challenged in federal court before they are scheduled to take effect Aug. 1. Any referral that clears hurdles to get on the statewide ballot would be meaningless, in that the referred laws likely will be tied up in litigation for years.

The hurdles to the ballot include a requirement that each law is referred separately, meaning petitioners would have to gather 13,452 valid signatures on each petition by June 24. Additionally, a fourth abortion bill is awaiting final action. If the governor signs it, will it, too, be part of the referral drive as a fourth separate signature-gathering effort? And if the signature efforts fail (as several have in the recent past), will that be seen as a measure of sentiment against the new laws?

Hangsleben and Riemers say these matters are too important to be left to lawmakers and courts; they want to use referrals to simulate discussion among North Dakotans. That’s a noble notion, but where have they been the past few months? If ever North Dakotans have participated in a lively, emotional and sometimes nasty debate, the abortion bills measure up.

Finally, North Dakotans will vote next year on the overall abortion question via a constitutional measure that would in effect ban all abortions for any reason at all stages of life. That’s the big one, and that’s the one that will determine whether North Dakotans will tolerate an extraordinary intrusion by government into their private lives. If the Grand Forks petitioners want to stimulate debate, they should concentrate on the constitutional amendment, not waste time on referring laws that will be bound up in court for years.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.