BISMARCK, N.D. – North Dakota has all but enacted what would be two of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
Now the state’s governor faces a choice. He can join with his fellow Republicans and approve measures that are likely to lead to a costly legal battle that opponents say will end in utter failure. Or he could veto bills that have enough support to pass without him, a move that would draw the ire of social conservatives in a state that is historically socially conservative.
Even those in North Dakota who normally balk at government spending don’t seem concerned about spending money on a fight over the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
“We have a lot of important things to spend money on,” said Sen. Dwight Cook, a Republican from Mandan who chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee and calls himself a fiscal conservative. “But I didn’t give any consideration to the cost [of abortion litigation].”
Lawmakers on Friday sent Gov. Jack Dalrymple two anti-abortion bills, one banning the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and another prohibiting women from having the procedure based on the fetus’s gender or because it has a genetic defect, such as Down syndrome. Abortion rights activists have vowed to fight the measures in court. The battle is likely to be closely-watched by abortion foes and supporters of legal abortion across the U.S.
Dalrymple hasn’t offered any hints as to where he stands on the abortion bills. But whether or not he thinks it’s wise for the state to spend its money on such a fight may not matter: The measures have enough support in the House and Senate for the Legislature to override him.
“I think plenty of people in the party would love to push this to the Supreme Court and they would love to be the state that overturns Roe v. Wade,” said Mark Jendrysik, a University of North Dakota political science professor who expects Dalrymple to sign the abortion measures into law.
The Republican-led Legislature “is clearly willing to pass bills that are going to tie up the state in expensive litigation,” Jendrysik said. “It’s been a main plank of the party in North Dakota to be as strong as pro-life as possible. The ideological position is very strong and worth the money to them.”
Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley told The Associated Press on Saturday that he and the governor were reviewing several measures over the weekend and would meet Monday to discuss the abortion bills, among others. He would not comment on whether the governor would sign or veto the abortion measures.
“We take the same methodical approach on abortion bills as we do on bills for roads, water or schools,” Wrigley said.
Cook, who has served in the Legislature for 17 years, said he expects Dalrymple to sign the legislation.
“He’s as pro-life as I am, and to what degree he looks at cost, I don’t know,” Cook said. “If I had to bet, I’d bet he signs them.”
North Dakota is one of several states with Republican-controlled Legislatures and GOP governors that is looking at abortion restrictions. Arkansas passed a 12-week ban earlier this month that prohibits most abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected using an abdominal ultrasound.
A fetal heartbeat can generally be detected earlier in a pregnancy using a vaginal ultrasound, but Arkansas lawmakers balked at requiring women seeking abortions to have the more invasive imaging technique. North Dakota’s measure doesn’t specify how a fetal heartbeat would be detected.
North Dakota is uniquely positioned to undertake an expensive legal fight. Fueled by the unprecedented oil bonanza in the western part of the state, North Dakota now leads the nation in population growth, boasts a nearly $2 billion budget surplus and has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.
Still, the record production that has thrust the state to the nation’s No. 2 oil producer behind Texas also has brought challenges, including more crime brought on by an exploding population and torn-up roads from increased traffic. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new housing construction and infrastructure improvements haven’t kept pace.
Democratic Sen. Mac Schneider, an attorney from Grand Forks and the Senate’s minority leader, said the Legislature should focus on those needs instead of “expensive and potentially protracted abortion litigation.”
“There hasn’t been near enough attention given to the costs as we’ve debated these issues. We need to be honest with taxpayer funds and that is: We will be spending money on attorneys,” Schneider said.
Abortion-rights activists are urging Dalrymple to veto the bills, which they say is aimed at shuttering North Dakota’s sole abortion clinic in downtown Fargo. They say there’s no way the courts would uphold the laws and the state would be better off spending its money on other things.
“The amount of money somebody spends on this is not the issue. They’re clearly unconstitutional,” she said. “Certainly North Dakotans have better things to spend their money on than blatantly unconstitutional laws.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights is already representing the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo for free in a lawsuit over a 2011 law banning the widely accepted use of a medication that induces abortion. A judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of the law, and a trial is slated for April, the center said.