Post-Roe, ND puts resources into abortion alternatives
WARSAW – North Dakota this year adopted one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, with narrow exceptions for rape and incest victims in the first six weeks of pregnancy and to save the life of the mother.
Although abortions-rights advocates haven’t given up the fight, abortion opponents are moving ahead with the restrictions and placing a heavier emphasis on supporting new mothers through legislation and services, such as maternity homes for pregnant women and teens.
One of those teens is Molly Richards, who was just 13 when she learned she was pregnant.
She remembers feeling both “excited and oblivious” when she got the results at a clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where she grew up. The community is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, of which Richards, now 17, is a member.
Despite her initial excitement, the reality of carrying and raising a child began to sink in. But Richards didn’t view abortion as an option.
Seeking resources, Richards and her family connected with Mary Pat Jahner, director of Saint Gianna & Pietro Molla Maternity Home in the small, unincorporated community of Warsaw.
The home serves young pregnant women – most from nearby Native American reservations. In addition to food and shelter, the facility provides counseling services, clothing, job skills and parenting classes to mothers.
“Our main purpose is just to provide a choice for moms who …might need a place to stay or might need a family,” Jahner said.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022 and returned abortion decisions to the states, researchers predicted the number of births nationwide would increase, as would the need to support pregnant people, young mothers and their children.
With abortions essentially unavailable in the state, where religion is deeply ingrained and diverse, efforts to support mothers and their children have taken on new prominence.
Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, signed bills this year that eliminated taxes on diapers; expanded Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for pregnant individuals; and provided additional funding to the alternatives-to-abortion program, which gives funds to child-placement agencies, anti-abortion counseling centers and maternity homes – including Gianna & Pietro.
Abortion-rights activists doubt the effectiveness of the few measures that made it through the state Legislature.
“None of them are actually adequate to address fully supporting a pregnant person bringing a child into the world and raising a child to adulthood,” said Cody Schuler, advocacy manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota.
And state Sen. Janne Myrdal, a Republican who represents the northeastern-most district in the state, where the Gianna & Pietro home is located, warned state funding does come with strings attached.
“If you ask for that much support, then the government’s going to come on top of it and go, ‘We’re going to regulate you,'” Myrdal said. “You can’t pray for people, you can’t hug people, you can’t share Jesus with people who come in because the government can’t do that.”
Gianna & Pietro, which is a nonprofit organization, receives the majority of its funding – about $500,000 to $600,000 each year – from individual donors, but it also has received funds from the state’s alternatives-to-abortion program.
In this year’s bill, about $100,000 was earmarked for the home; Jahner said the money will go toward updating vehicles and other needs.
In the nearly two decades of the home’s operation, more than 300 people have lived there, and more than 100 children have been born as part of the program.
During a recent visit, three women who were either pregnant or young mothers, including Richards, lived at the home. Staff members stay on site, too, to provide support.
Richards’ initial stay in 2019 only lasted a month. Feeling homesick, she returned to South Dakota to give birth. But after struggling to parent on her own and dropping out of school, Richards returned to Gianna & Pietro over a year and a half ago, with her son, Bernard, in tow.
Richards is now in the process of having her son adopted, because, she said, “I wanted something more and better for my son.”
There is a clear religious aspect to Gianna & Pietro. Although residents are not required to be Catholic or religious to live at the home, residents must attend Sunday Mass, take part in a nightly prayer and participate in grace before meals.
With limited capacity in homes like Gianna & Pietro, abortion care across the Red River in neighboring Minnesota remains essential, abortion-rights advocates say.
“The amount of pregnant people who are having their abortions today across the river would fill up those homes fivefold today,” said Destini Spaeth, board chair for the North Dakota Women in Need Abortion Access Fund.
Abortion is legal in Minnesota up to fetal viability, which is 24 to 26 weeks, and exceptions are granted to protect the life and health of the mother. Surrounded by states that have completely banned abortion or are in court fighting to prevent access, Minnesota has become a key state for access in the Upper Midwest.
For nearly 25 years, Red River Women’s Clinic operated in Fargo and was the only abortion clinic in the state for two decades. Every Wednesday, when the clinic was open, protesters gathered with graphic signs outside its door.
Last year, after word of the Supreme Court’s likely end to Roe was leaked, its operators began looking for a new location. Last August, they reopened fewer than three miles away – across the river in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Each Wednesday, the clinic provides 25 to 30 abortions up to the 16-week mark of pregnancy – a 10% to 15% increase in abortion care since it moved to Moorhead.
“We didn’t want to give up on North Dakota. We didn’t want to leave,” said Tammi Kromenaker, the facility’s director. “But our hand was forced.”
News21 reporters Trilce Estrada Olvera and Cassidey Kavathas contributed to this story. This report is part of “America After Roe,” an examination of the impact of the reversal of Roe v. Wade on health care, culture, policy and people, produced by Carnegie-Knight News21, a program that brings together journalism students from universities across the nation to produce a multiformat project on an issue. For more stories visit americaafterroe.news21.com.