BISMARCK, N.D. — Megan Madden has tried to educate herself about the eight measures facing North Dakota voters on Election Day. But only one — an amendment that would declare in the state constitution that life begins at conception — still has her confused.
"I read the paper and I've read all the brochures about it that are stuck in my door," the 27-year-old Bismarck convenience store manager said. "I understand what the measure says but I still don't know what it really means."
The single-sentence measure would be the nation's first to amend a state constitution and require the "inalienable right to life" at "any stage of development." Supporters say it's meant to protect the state's current abortion laws from judicial activism. Those opposed believe the intent is to outlaw abortion altogether and say the vague wording could affect birth control, end-of-life care plans and in vitro fertilization.
The Republican-led Legislature passed some of the nation's strictest abortion laws last year, including one that bans abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. A Bismarck-based federal judge blocked the law from taking affect and the state has appealed.
Along with the spate of anti-abortion legislation, North Dakota lawmakers also passed a resolution that allows voters to decide on Nov. 4 whether the measure's life-begins-at-conception wording belongs in the state constitution.
State Sen. Margaret Sitte, a Republican who is ardently anti-abortion, sponsored the resolution, saying at its introduction that it was meant to be a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until a fetus is considered viable. The Bismarck resident now says the resolution's intent is simply to "protect laws the Legislature has put in place."
The prospect of changing the North Dakota constitution has abortion-rights advocates and others nervous. Oil-rich North Dakota is a highly religious red state, where few mind that buying most anything other than groceries on Sunday mornings is banned by state law.
"We are very Christian and very conservative," said Rep. Kathy Hawken, a Republican from Fargo who supports legal abortion. She called the measure's wording ambiguous and "scary as heck" if it passes.
"I'm extremely hopeful people will realize this isn't the answer for banning abortion. It has other consequences and could cost the state millions of dollars in endless litigation," she said.
Dina Butcher, who chairs North Dakotans Against Measure 1, said many of the state's religious leaders have addressed the measure during Sunday sermons. "But not everyone who sits in those pews are with them on this," said Butcher, a Republican.
Butcher said the measure's vague language is meant to "camouflage" its real intent to bar abortions and also could potentially affect end-of-life care plans and cause problems for infertile couples seeking to use in vitro fertilization.
"That absolutely is not the intent," said Janne Myrdal, who heads ND Choose Life, a group supporting the measure. "The intent is to protect laws that are on the books already. The opposition is blatantly lying and trying to put fear in peoples' minds."
But Dr. Steffen Christensen, who founded North Dakota's only in vitro fertilization clinic in Fargo 20 years ago, said he will close the clinic if the measure passes. His attorneys have told him doctors and workers are at risk of legal action "if there is a loss of an embryo."
"We are covered for malpractice but criminal charges? We're on our own," he said. "Sooner or later, someone would try to make an example of us."