North Dakota Freeze

03.30.13

How North Dakota Reached Its Extreme Abortion Tipping Point

A ban after six weeks—and personhood? How did state legislators pass four of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bills? In Fargo, Winston Ross talks to the moderate conservative who might have blocked them.

As they do each year on Good Friday, a crowd of 150 people clutching prayer booklets huddled tightly together in a line along First Street in downtown Fargo. A young man in dark clothing and dark sunglasses wielded a statue of Jesus on the cross. Their collective message for the state’s only abortion provider, the Red River Women’s Clinic: stop killing babies.

“For all who cooperate in the evil of abortion, give them clear vision, Lord, to see the evil before them,” read Monsignor Joseph Goering, the vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, in the Catholic ceremony known as “Stations of the Cross.”

If North Dakota’s Republican-controlled legislature prevails, these parishioners will have to find some other way to spend their next Good Friday. On Tuesday, Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed into law three of the most restrictive abortion bills in the nation. A fourth, an amendment to the North Dakota constitution that would grant legal “personhood” rights to embryos from the moment of fertilization, will be decided by the state’s voters in the fall.

Women’s rights supporters in North Dakota and around the world were stunned that the state’s laws made it off the governor’s desk, but the anti-abortion rights activists gathered in the Fargo fog on Friday were jubilant. After four years of failed attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade and end abortion in the United States, they have finally won a state victory—for now. Many constitutional and legal experts say they believe that at least the state’s law effectively banning abortions after six weeks will be struck down in federal court, as will the personhood amendment, should it pass. But to Cathy Loney, director of youth and the young adult ministry at Fargo’s Catholic Diocese, every victory is significant.

“We always feel there’s hope for what Christ wants us to do, but this is a good sign,” Loney told The Daily Beast.

As far as Loney is concerned, the progress anti-abortion rights activists made this week is due as much to the church’s establishment of a chapel in the building across the street from the clinic as anything that happened in North Dakota’s capital, Bismarck.

“Christ is in that building,” she said. “He’s watching over his unborn.”

But the earthly reality is this: North Dakota is leading the nation in a fight against abortion rights because its lawmakers capitalized on the Tea Party’s 2010 momentum, booted the moderate conservative they blamed for getting in the way of passing these bills last November, and sent a stern warning to anyone else who gets in the way of the fight to overturn Roe.

The holdout was a third-generation North Dakotan from Edinburg named Curtis Olafson, a former Republican member of the state Senate who swears up and down that he’d just as soon never see another baby aborted in North Dakota or anywhere, that he’s as anti-abortion rights as they come. In an interview with The Daily Beast on Friday, Olafson proudly asserted that he’s “voted for every pro-life bill that has ever come before me—except personhood bills.”

Those bills are nothing but “foolhardy,” Olafson insists, and they’re a waste of everyone’s time.

“The best and most reliable pro-life constitutional scholars in this country are issuing stern warnings that this Supreme Court will not overturn Roe v. Wade,” he said.

“I think people weren’t aware of how extreme some of these people were when they were voting for them,” Stromme said. “I think they’ve awoken a sleeping giant.”

For two legislative sessions in a row, he and that argument prevailed in North Dakota, and personhood bills that passed the house in 2009 and 2011 failed in the Senate, which some attributed to Olafson“single-handedly” blocking them.

“Outrage after North Dakota GOP senator suddenly tables historic measure banning all abortions,” was the April 2011 headline at Lifesitenews.com.

“Everybody was stunned,” North Dakota Life League lobbyist Daniel Woodward told the site, calling Olafson’s move a “shocking betrayal” and a “punch in the gut.” “The pro-life senators were furious.”

Along came the Tea Party, the renewed vigor of the right wing and the same perils to moderate Republicans that have ousted longstanding lawmakers across the country in recent years.

Last year, Olafson’s fellow legislators “redistricted” him, redrawing the state’s political boundaries so that he faced not one but two other sitting lawmakers in the November election. He still thought maybe he could keep the seat, until Personhood USA jumped into the fray. The organization sent out “vicious attack mailers” not just to the voters in Olafson’s district but to nearly every lawmaker in the state. To voters, the message was: this guy doesn’t protect unborn babies. To the other lawmakers, the message was: don’t mess with Personhood USA.

“We’re coming after you next,” Olafson said. “It was effective.”

Olafson and another redistricted moderate Republican found themselves out of a job.

“We lost two moderate Republicans for one extremist,” said Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women’s Network.

Of seven anti-abortion rights bills introduced in the current legislative session, four sailed right through.

“Many members of the legislature are basing their voting decisions on fear, rather than what is sound,” Olafson said.

That’s how the Red River clinic’s director, Tammi Kromenaker, sees it too.

“I think the governor was bullied, just like other legislators were bullied, by Personhood USA,” Kromenaker said. “I think they took the easy way out.”

Now what? Supporters of abortion rights in North Dakota and across the country say they are hoping for a backlash.

“I think people weren’t aware of how extreme some of these people were when they were voting for them,” Stromme said. “I think they’ve awoken a sleeping giant. People are coming out of the woodwork with frustration.”

Olafson wants to see a reversal too, albeit with a different motivation. He said he believes that once he’s proved right—that personhood amendments are quixotic quests—he and other abortion opponents can refocus on an agenda that can stop abortions.

“I don’t believe any of the legislation that passed this session is going to stop one abortion,” Olafson said. “Not one. I would very much like to prevent as many abortions as possible, but this is not the way to do it.”

Before his ouster, Olafson was working on a bill that would have provided incentives for women to choose adoption instead of abortion, along with sex education to ensure that women can get access to birth control.

“The best way to prevent abortions, of course, is for a woman not to need one in the first place,” he said.