North Dakota’s road toward the repeal of Roe v. Wade

With the unprecedented leak coming from the Supreme Court, the 2022 midterms now have their flashpoint issue, as it appears that the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 will be overturned. The motivations behind the leak are surely as cynical as they are political, and aren’t likely to preserve the status quo around the issue that has cemented abortion as a wedge issue between voters and political parties for decades.

Roe v. Wade was a landmark for a number of reasons, but most significantly, it will be remembered as the one that transformed Supreme Court appointments into a battleground, which is partially why this originalist court has rationalized overruling it. Before the outrage surrounding the existence of the leak itself could really be processed, the Democrat political apparatus and activists around the nation began galvanizing around it.

Democrats did attempt to force through an emergency bill to codify abortion rights, but it was narrowly struck down when West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D) crossed the aisle and voted against it. While that very well could be good news for a party that had previously been projecting certain doom in the midterm elections, it does no favors for the moribund Democrat-NPL of North Dakota.

North Dakota is one of nine states with trigger laws in place to outright ban elective abortions rendering them a Class C Felony with very specific exceptions, if indeed the Court repeals Roe. State party leaders were quick to fire off denunciations of the leaked draft, which stands in stark contrast to their party’s candidate for the House Mark Haugen, who happens to be pro-life. With how slim the pickings were at their convention this year, it isn’t shocking that the DNPL would make an exception on Haugen’s pro-life views. How else could they hope to contend in a state that has been steadily chipping away at abortion rights since before Roe was decided?

In 1972, North Dakota voters overwhelmingly shot down an initiated measure to legalize abortion in the state. It took a veto from then Governor George Sinner in 1991 to hold back a bill that would have been the most restrictive in the country at the time. A dividing line was driven through the electorate of this state from this point forward, with many lifelong Dem-NPL supporters jumping ship to the GOP as they established themselves as the pro-life party.

The venerable “Big Three” of Byron Dorgan, Earl Pomeroy, and Kent Conrad would go on to represent the state for nearly 20 years, but even they had to embrace compromise to survive politically and endure as long as they did. None of them got good ratings from Planned Parenthood or the National Association to Repeal Abortion Laws, with their records reflecting opposition to partial birth abortion and federal funding of the procedure.

Coincidentally, then Sen. Conrad was one of four Democrats to vote in favor of confirming Judge Samuel Alito to the bench, whose leaked draft majority opinion kicked off the firestorm currently engulfing the nation. All three served by embracing a degree of pragmatism, but their flavor of bi-partisanship fell by the wayside with the arrival of the Obama Administration. The Obama era brought with it a brand of Identity Politics committed to progressive dogma and conversative resistance to it, and all three had stepped down by 2013.

While former Republican governor John Hoeven filled Dorgan’s vacancy, Conrad was succeeded by fellow Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who won the Senate seat by less than 3,000 votes. The first woman to be elected senator in North Dakota history, Heitkamp received a 100% rating from abortion advocacy groups. Heitkamp did her best to emulate her predecessors, straddling the line between party and people as she navigated the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations.

What may have sunk her standing in her own state was her vote against the appointment of embattled Judge Brett Kavanaugh, whose caustic confirmation hearings divided the nation. Kavanaugh’s appointment was a critical one for the presumed repeal of Roe, with North Dakota voters having it beaten into their brains leading up to the 2018 midterms. Heitkamp may have raised $22 million more than her opponent Kevin Cramer, but she found herself bounced after 54% of voters favored the Republican, who would seal the fate of Roe with his support of President Trump’s third Supreme Court appointee Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

The questions facing abortion advocates in North Dakota and many other states are these: how do they bridge the wedge still firmly dividing the voters? Is compromise possible with an issue as intractable as this, or should they shift their efforts to other venues like the availability of contraception and sexual education?

Their political position is not enviable, but now it can only be solved by looking toward state legislative races, which the Dem-NPL is in no position to contend with this season. For both sides of the issue, the battleground may be shifting but the battle remains the same.


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