North Dakota poised as first state to confirm science & declare life begins at conception

by Karen L. Willoughby |

NORTH DAKOTA (Christian Examiner) – North Dakota would be the first state to define life as beginning at conception if the state convention's constitutional amendment, Measure 1, is approved by voters this Tuesday.

Conception is defined medically in terms of the one-cell zygote -- created by the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm -- that after dividing several times, implants in the uterus.

However, these cells are not just undefined blobs of tissue, and science shows "your world was shaped in the first 24 hours after conception."

In a little-heralded report published in Nature, July 4, 2002, writer Helen Pearson shared news about a series of studies that disabused the notion that human embryos were just a "featureless orb of cells" their first few days. Key findings by Richard Gardner, an embryologist at the University of Oxford, UK, and Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz's team at the Wellcome/Cancer Research UK Institute showed that even at the first division, cells had unique functions and "fates" and scientists could tell with 100 percent certainty which hemisphere would produce the head, the spine and the feet.

Moreover, she said the findings raised "the possibility that any technique that meddles with early human development — such as the removal of cells from an early embryo for pre-implantation genetic testing — might potentially be harmful."

Later work by scientists Ran Huo and Qi Zhou suggested that biopsies, even removal of a single cell from an 8-10 cell embryo, a blastomere, could be harmful and others concede such procedures "could unintentionally destroy or damage the embryo."

Now, North Dakota stands to be the first state to confirm this science in its constitution.

But, the possibility of North Dakota defining life at that beginning stage has created a furor in the state, with emotions so hot an editorial in the Bismarck Tribune refused to take sides.

"For some, it's part of their faith .... For others, it relates to their freedom to make life choices .... For many, it's all of these issues, creating personal conflicts that each individual must resolve. For these reasons, the Tribune Editorial Board believes how voters cast their ballots on Measure 1 is a personal decision. They should vote their conscience."

Colorado and Tennessee also have abortion-related measures set for votes the first Tuesday in November, but the North Dakota referendum is unique in that it would amend its Constitution to say life begins at conception.

Measure 1 adds a section to Article 1 of the North Dakota Constitution that reads: "The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected."

It's purposefully vague to protect laws already on the books, supporters say. But opponents claim it's so broad that it could affect access to birth control, in-vitro fertilization and end-of-life care plans.

"It's the broadness of the issue that bothers me," State Representative Kathy Hawken told the Christian Examiner. "I am very pragmatic; I can't make health judgments for anyone but me."

She did make one for her father, against his wishes, Hawken said with voice shaking in memory of the suffering he endured the final year of his life. She knows women with grandchildren conceived through in-vitro fertilization who wouldn't have those blessings if the procedure wasn't possible. And she says she knows people who have improved quality of life because of stem-cell treatment.

About $1.4 million of the $1.5 million spent by the opposition on the upcoming vote on Measure 1 has been spent by Planned Parenthood, Measure 1 supporters say.

Hawken and others like her who are against Measure 1, have "fallen victim to the lies of the abortion industry," said Jo Vogner, an executive committee member of North Dakota Choose Life, which she described as a coalition of "pro-life, pro-family, pro-Christian organizations working together to pass Measure 1.

"Planned Parenthood does not provide in-vitro fertilization or end-of-life care," Vogner told the Christian Examiner. "They're not concerned about end-of-life care; they're concerned about ending life." Planned Parenthood's ads address "everything but abortion," Vogner added.

Abortions cost upwards of $300, and more in the later stages of the unborn infant's life, Vogner said. More than 300,000 abortions are performed each year – one every 96 seconds – and most of them are performed at Planned Parenthood clinics. It's an industry desperate to keep its profit margins high and fearful of other states going a similar path to North Dakota. That's why they have provided about 96 percent of the cost to defeat Measure one, the spokeswoman continued.

"I'm not saying people should have an abortion," anti-Measure 1 advocate Hawken said. "I am saying this law, this is going in the constitution, and this kind of thing was never meant to be in the constitution."

Measure 1 is on the North Dakota ballot because the abortion industry last year did what it's done many times in many states, Vogner said. They picked an abortion-related point to sue – in North Dakota it was a law limiting abortion-causing drugs – and found a sympathetic judge.

Judge Wickham Corwin exceeded the Supreme Court's Roe v Wade finding. In an 88-page decision, he found that in Article 1 Section 1 of the North Dakota constitution, state residents have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A woman's right to liberty gives her the right to have an abortion, he ruled.

"The North Dakota Legislature approved Measure 1 to go on the ballot to allow the people of North Dakota to fix this hole that's been created by this judge's ruling," Vogner said. "The intent is the 'inalienable right to life' that is designed to stop a judge or lawmakers from inventing a right to an abortion under our constitution."

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee entered the fray on behalf of Measure 1 supporters.

"A North Dakota Judge, Wickham Corwin, ruled that he would block any pro-life law because he is convinced that a woman's reproductive rights [including abortion for any reason] must be protected under the state constitution and must be recognized as fundamental,'" Huckabee wrote. "How can abortion be considered a 'fundamental' right? Our forefathers believed that life was an inalienable right, endowed by our Creator!"

Contrary to what Measure 1 opponents say, according to established case law, a constitutional amendment is not self-executing, Vogner said. "It cannot in and of itself change any laws, or take rights away unless it's so specific in its language that it states so, clearly. If [Measure 1] is vague, there is nothing to worry about.

"Measure 1 does not ban abortion; it merely keeps laws we have restricting and regulating them, to keep these laws we already have from being overturned," Vogner continued. "In North Dakota we have excellent pro-life laws on our books: Minors cannot get an abortion without parental permission, which many states allow. There's [sic] a 24-hour waiting period, no partial-birth abortions, sex-selection or fetal abnormality abortions, and many other excellent laws. All those laws would be struck down if they are successful in finding a right in the North Dakota constitution to virtually unrestricted abortion."

Opponents to North Dakota's Measure 1 link it with Colorado's Amendment 67, which would broaden the definition of "person" and "child" in terms of how the state approaches crime, wrote Tierney Sneed for the U.S. News and World Report. This is the third time advocates for "life begins at conception" have tried to pass a similar constitutional amendment.

"These so-called 'personhood' amendments are by no means new ....," Sneed wrote. "However, North Dakota's version could be the first of its kind to pass by ballot initiative."

A Huffington Post article stated that passage of Tennessee's Amendment 1 would mean the state's does not protect women's right to have to an abortion, and it would effectively overrule a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court decision that struck down a 36-hour mandatory waiting period before abortion.

"Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion," the measure says.

The amendment would open the door for lawmakers to pass new anti-abortion laws without having to worry about being blocked by the courts.

"What this does is open the floodgates for more and more extraordinary restrictions," said Jennifer Dalven, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project at the American Civil Liberties Union to the Huffington Post. "One could not look to the Tennessee constitution for any legal protection."

Recent polling shows that more Tennessee voters support the measure than oppose it, although it's still too close to call. North Dakota news media say its vote is too close to call.