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15 years later, Democrats reckon with votes supporting North Dakota abortion ban

A handful of Democrats who backed the bill are still in the Legislature.

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The 65th North Dakota Legislative Assembly winds down in this 2017 file photo. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune
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GRAND FORKS — Abortion access in North Dakota is about to change dramatically. On July 28, a 2007 law banning the procedure — with narrow exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s life — will take effect.

It’s a 15-year-old law, written and passed in a bygone era, when the right to an abortion secured by Roe v. Wade seemed ironclad. Passing the law had no immediate consequences then, and existed as little more than a signal to pro-life voters that the state was on their side. But after a late June Supreme Court decision ending the right to abortion, that law will now reshape the politics of North Dakota women’s health care.

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And without Democrats’ support, it wouldn’t have been possible.

When the 2007 abortion ban passed, it came with remarkable bipartisan backing. The state House passed the bill 68-24, with 14 of its 33 Democrats lending their votes. In the Senate, the measure passed 29-16, and eight of the chamber’s 21 Democrats supported it — enough to have blocked it, had those senators voted the other way.

A handful of Democrats who backed the bill are still in the Legislature. Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, is one of them.

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State Sen. Joan Heckaman
State Sen. Joan Heckaman

“I think all of us value life. And I think that's probably one of the reasons I voted for that bill,” Heckaman said. Pressed on whether she believes it’s a good law, Heckaman said it’s “debatable.”

“I don't want any abortions to happen,” she said “But at the same time, the Legislature has been negligent of its job of fulfilling the health care for women and newborns. We don't take care of the young moms, we don't make sure that they have what they need. And I think we've got a long way to go there.”

State Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo and an elder statesman among a shrinking Democratic caucus, was another supporter of the bill. He said he’s proud of work he did in 2007 to insist on several exceptions that make the law less strict — such as exceptions for cases of rape and incest and to protect the mother’s life. Like Heckaman, he said he’s disappointed in a lack of systems that support infants and new parents.

“There is also concern about the child — the other life that we're dealing with here. That life is also worthy of our society's attention and concern,” he said. He added that the legislative process involves compromise, and lamented that it’s become more of a “black and white process” that is often driven by the outer edges of debate.

Mathern acknowledged, though, he sees a shift since 2007.

“I think society has changed … in terms of the concept of bodily integrity as being a concept wholly independent from the issue of the life of another person,” he said. “And I think that has more energy today from the public than it did 15, 20 years ago.”

In one respect, Mathern is clearly correct: quite a lot is different from where it was 15 years ago, when rural Democrats were not yet a rarity and when abortion was less of a partisan debate. In fact, the two leading sponsors in the House were Democrats.

Tim Mathern (DNPL)candidate for North Dakota State TreasurerSpecial to The Forum
Tim Mathern
Special to The Forum

Since then, the Democratic-NPL has been decimated by advances the GOP has made in rural areas, as the country increasingly polarizes into more urban, left-of-center enclaves and more sparsely populated conservative zones.

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In North Dakota, Democrats are hardly competitive west of Interstate 29 anymore. Nationally, it’s hard to imagine a modern Democratic caucus split on the issue of abortion — and for a lot of voters, that’s what matters. To hear Mathern tell it, North Dakota Democrats can’t outrun the reputation of those national Democrats.

“I don't think your rank-and-file Democrats changed,” he said. “But I think the national narrative about what Democrats believe and what Republicans believe has become taken in by North Dakotans.”

Mac Schneider, active in North Dakota Democratic politics from 2008 to 2018, has watched a lot of those changes happen.

“When I started (as a state senator) back in ’09, the Tip O'Neill saying that all politics are local — I think that was largely true,” Schneider said. “Now I think it's largely true to say all politics are national.”

Much of North Dakota’s modern abortion debate traces to 1991, when an anti-abortion measure — with exceptions for rape, incest and to save a mother’s life — passed the North Dakota Legislature. It was met with a veto by Gov. George Sinner, who once aspired to the Catholic priesthood.

"I am a Catholic and ... I agree with the current Catholic judgment that abortion is wrong," Sinner said at the time. "The issue here, however, is the role of the law."

But Sinner signed a bill that imposed a 24-hour waiting period on abortions, and required women receive information on medical risks and alternatives.

1991 was a year of intense conflict over abortion. The Associated Press also recalls that days after the passage of the abortion bill, 26 people “stormed” a Fargo abortion clinic, and that 10 North Dakota anti-abortion protests saw 210 people arrested over the course of the year.

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Sinner’s choices slowed the success of the anti-abortion movement. But it couldn’t mask that the Legislature was overwhelmingly opposed to the procedure; the ban had passed in the Senate 32-21, and in the House 64-39.

“The fact that it did pass showed the majority of our legislative representatives did speak out against abortion,” Renee Klein, leader of the North Dakota Right to Life, told the Associated Press that year.

By 2007, Gov. John Hoeven — now the state’s senior Republican U.S. senator — was ready to sign an abortion ban, and did. It still left critics unsure what would come next, and raised questions that more politicians will surely face in coming years.

"Assume you're undergoing chemotherapy and found yourself pregnant. What would you do?" Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, wondered in 2007. "What does this law allow you to do?"

The state confronted the issue just seven years later, though, when in 2014 North Dakota voters shot down a “personhood” ballot measure that would have added language to the state constitution noting that “the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” Politico recalls that critics had worried the measure might “restrict access to abortion even before viability, criminalize in-vitro fertilization or limit end-of-life treatment choices.”

One of the largest questions now about Roe v. Wade is mostly about how its aftermath will unfold; it’s already messy and unclear. In Florida, a judge this week moved to block a 15-week abortion ban, citing the state constitution. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., suggested in the aftermath of the ruling that justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch misled them.

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., suggested something similar. Heitkamp, who in 2018 lost her seat to Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., had voted for Gorsuch but against Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

“I believed that Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly lied under oath, so I trusted nothing he said about his position on Roe v. Wade,” Heitkamp texted a reporter this week. She added on Gorsuch that “I think he knew at the time that he testified that he was a likely vote to overturn Roe v. Wade but hid behind veiled language on ‘establish precedent’ to just get through the confirmation process.”

“Because I have more respect for Justice Gorsuch, it’s a greater disappointment that he wasn’t more transparent,” she said.

Heidi Heitkamp
Heidi Heitkamp

State Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo is the House minority leader. He lamented the “absoluteness” of the Supreme Court’s decision, he said, worrying that doctors might hesitate in some parts of the country to perform essential care on pregnancies dangerous to a pregnant mother.

But he also pointed out that the Democratic-NPL welcomes all kinds of candidates, especially when a reporter pointed out that Mark Haugen, the party’s U.S. House candidate, is pro-life .

“Our caucus, compared to the Republican caucus, isn’t a caucus that sits down and says, ‘you have to vote this way,’” Boschee said. He acknowledged, though, that there are supporters who want more “litmus tests” for politicians on abortion and the rights of sexual minorities and more.

“But part of governing is being able to take the information you have and trying to make the best decision you can,” he added. “What I would say to Democratic voters is that you need to have conversations with candidates, both Republican and Democrat, about the issues that are important to you.”

josh-boschee.jpg
Joshua Boschee

Related Topics: ABORTIONNORTH DAKOTA
Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at samkweaster@gmail.com or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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