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North Dakota Senate Approves Nation’s Strictest Abortion Bill

March 28, 1991

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) _ What would be the strictest state abortion law in the nation is in the hands of a governor who once intended to be a priest but says it’s wrong for politicians to impose their religious beliefs on voters.

The bill, which bans abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger, was approved 32-21 Wednesday by the North Dakota Senate. The House approved the measure 64-39 last month.

Gov. George Sinner, a 62-year-old father of 10, has said he objects to ″the idea that those of us who believe there is a human person present at the time of conception can impose that belief on others.″

He declined to say Wednesday whether he would sign the bill. He earlier said he thought it ″goes too far.″

The Senate vote came after an emotional half-hour debate.

″All life, unborn and born, is sacred and has to be protected,″ said Sen. Donna Nalewaja, a Republican and the only one of six women senators to support the measure.

Sen. William Heigaard, the Democratic majority leader, said: ″Here we are today, 47 sanctimonious, hypocritical, mostly old men, making the most sensitive and important decision that could ever face a woman, when in fact we cannot truly understand the forces involved in a decision such as this.″

The bill could become the strictest state abortion law, according to the National Abortion Rights Action League in Washington and the Chicago-based Americans United for Life.

Utah, since January, has had the toughest state abortion law. That bill takes effect April 28.

The North Dakota bill is stricter because Utah permits abortions if the fetus has ″grave and irremediable physical or mental defects.″

The Utah law also allows abortions if the woman’s health is threatened; the North Dakota bill stipulates a woman’s life must be in danger.

In North Dakota, a rape would have to be reported to police within 21 days, or within 15 days after the woman became capable of reporting it, for an abortion to be legal.

Only those who perform illegal abortions would be prosecuted, with a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Sinner has three days to sign or veto the bill, or he can let it become law without his signature. He is not expected to receive the measure until next week.

It would take two-thirds of each chamber - or 36 senators and 71 House members - to override a veto.

Abortion rights advocates say the bill is unconstitutional, even in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision giving states greater freedom to restrict abortion.

″It’s just a way of making it tougher on young people and poor women to have an abortion,″ Jane Summers of the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, called the bill ″a very dangerous assault on the health and lives of women and their families.″

However, abortion foes were optimistic Sinner would approve it.

″Everything seems to be going so right. For now we just hold our breath and pray,″ said Carol Long, executive director of the North Dakota Right to Life Association.

Roman Catholic groups, including the state’s bishops, urged Sinner to approve the bill. The governor has a brother who is a Catholic priest.

In a 1989 interview, Sinner said he, too, intended to become a priest from the time he was in high school. In 1950, he graduated from St. John’s University in Minnesota with a philosophy degree but decided not to go on to the school’s seminary.

Under current North Dakota law, taxpayer money may not be used for abortions. A girl under 18 must have parental consent or a judge’s permission to have an abortion. A married woman must have her husband’s permission.

The state’s only abortion clinic is in Fargo. There were 1,761 abortions in North Dakota in 1989, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The strictest abortion law among U.S. territories was passed last year in Guam. It allowed abortions only in cases of grave threat to a woman’s health. A federal judge ruled it unconstitutional; the case is now before an appeals court.

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