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OUR OPINION: On abortion, Dalrymple should 'let the people decide'

Trust the people.

In North Dakota, you won't go far wrong if you keep that philosophy as your guiding star.

It's the reason why North Dakota has weathered ideological extremes and emerged as one of America's best-governed states.

Today, it's one more reason why Gov. Jack Dalrymple should veto the anti-abortion bills that are about to reach his desk: Because the Legislature, in its wisdom, also has provided for a statewide vote on the abortion issue.

And that's the outcome the governor and voters should prefer. For there's no better way to find out where North Dakotans stand -- and the issue of abortion is big enough to require this tried-and-true approach.

The statewide vote will come about because of Senate Continuing Resolution 4009, which now has passed the state Senate and House.

SCR 4009 would add a "personhood" amendment to the state constitution. If passed by the voters -- the next step in the process -- the amendment in effect would ban all abortions in the state.

Such a rule would violate the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a woman's right to an abortion under certain circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared. But that's an argument for another day.

And that's the point: For voters' purposes, it is an argument for another day. Specifically, it's an argument for the next 18 months.

Again, SCR 4009 won't take effect unless it's approved by voters. It likely will be on the ballot in November 2014.

Such a hugely divisive question that sets up such a profound challenge to federal law deserves to be settled by a vote of the people. That's the way North Dakota resolved the question of UND's Fighting Sioux nickname, to use just one recent example. Nothing that the Legislature or governor did had anything like the staying power of the statewide vote.

And the abortion issue is exponentially more controversial. It involves the deepest possible questions of religion, governance, authority, morality and even life itself.

It should be resolved in the way that confers the truest and most widely accepted legitimacy: by a popular vote.

By vetoing the other anti-abortion bills that reach his desk, Dalrymple can clear the way for that debate. He would help the state avoid costly and divisive court battles, too.

But why not go ahead and engage in those court battles now? Why not sign the bills, bring on the challenges and let the statewide and courtroom debates proceed on parallel tracks?

One reason is that those battles will cost money. But the more important reason has to do with factions, passion and politics itself.

In legislative races, strongly committed groups can have an outsized impact. Lawmakers must cast their votes in public; that means their re-elections can depend on how activists respond to key votes. And no issue inspires stronger activism than does abortion.

The net result is that House and Senate votes are imperfect proxies of public opinion, especially on controversial issues. That's why North Dakota allows for and encourages initiative and referendum: to let North Dakotans in the privacy of the voting booth have the last word.

Pro-life activists, flush from their legislative victories, may resist any such delay. But before they do so, they should consider the Duluth News-Tribune's editorial on this page.

For in Minnesota, the DFL-controlled Legislature is deciding whether to allow gay marriage; and the News-Tribune is suggesting a better way.

"It's a conversation that demands to be had beyond St. Paul and the Legislature's committee meetings," the newspaper declares.

"The issue demands a thorough statewide conversation -- followed by a statewide vote. ... Let the people decide. All the people. Not just an elected majority of politicians. Then whatever the people decide can be more easily accepted, whether done so while cheering or screaming."

North Dakota conservatives likely are nodding their heads at that argument. But if it applies to gay marriage, then it also applies to abortion, an equally divisive debate.

Dalrymple should veto the anti-abortion bills. Lawmakers have guaranteed a statewide vote on abortion in 2014. That means there's a way to "let the people decide -- all the people" on this most controversial of issues; and that's the course North Dakota should pursue.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald