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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ah, Dakota.

Some of you who have hung around this blog long enough may recall the halcyon days of 2006 when South Dakota attempted to ban abortion even in the case of rape or incest. I had a few things to say about that- primarily about the implicit devaluing of women who weren't virginal conservative Christians- but, blessedly, that ban failed. My own memory of that time, however, leaves me relatively unsurprised to hear about a new attempt to ban abortion in neighboring North Dakota. Interestingly, however, this effort is trying- in its own half-assed way- to be subtle.

Specifically, the bill doesn't ban abortion per se but rather defines a fertilized human egg as a person. No, really:

A measure approved by the North Dakota House gives a fertilized human egg the legal rights of a human being, a step that would essentially ban abortion in the state.

The bill is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that extended abortion rights nationwide, supporters of the legislation said.

Representatives voted 51-41 to approve the measure Tuesday. It now moves to the North Dakota Senate for its review.

The bill declares that "any organism with the genome of homo sapiens" is a person protected by rights granted by the North Dakota Constitution and state laws.

The measure's sponsor, Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said the legislation did not automatically ban abortion. Ruby has introduced bills in previous sessions of the Legislature to prohibit abortion in North Dakota. [emphasis added]

Now, for one thing, the supporters of this measure appear to be talking out of both sides of their face. I mean, they have to be since one would assume that "a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade" stands a good chance of being an automatic "ban on abortion." Additionally, what this bill essentially does is define a fetus as a person, equal under the law with you or me or any of the rest of us non-womb-resident homo sapiens. And while I suppose you could say this doesn't ban abortion, it would have the logical implication that aborting a fetus would automatically constitute murder, so that's a distinction without a difference. I can only hope that, despite her current distractions, my old pal Plain(s)feminist gets a few shots in here.

Now, obviously, I'm unhappy about this effort to drastically curtail reproductive rights. I don't like the idea of abortion. My wife doesn't like the idea of abortion. Even before we were married we didn't think we would get an abortion had we gotten pregnant unexpectedly. But, that said, we both strongly support the right of women to have an abortion if they choose. We might say that we're pro-choice voters who wouldn't have an abortion- thereby covering ourselves in some warped moral authority- but we also aren't a low income family with six children already and not enough money or childcare to go around. I very strongly believe that women who get abortions are overwhelmingly not cavalier about it but are, rather, deeply troubled by an action they feel compelled to take. And it isn't my, or anyone else's place, to treat them like selfish children who can't make decisions about their own bodies and lives.

Beyond that, however, I find this bill troubling on other levels. First, because it would inevitably define an embryo as a legal person. This raises some thorny issues- can the embryo hold property? Can it enter into legally binding contracts? If a fetus should- in the process of being born- kill its mother, is it then liable for manslaughter? This may seem like a clever end-run around Roe v. Wade but, really, it opens a gigantic can of worms from a legal standpoint and, I would guess, some fascinating potential tax loopholes.

Even more interesting, the phrasing of the bill is such that any organism with a human genome is a person but, really, what the hell does that even mean? A skin cell is an organism and it contains the human genome. Thus, are all of my constituent cells individual people? If I have an appendectomy, am I committing genocide? What about using radiation on a tumor? Is that violating the tumor's civil rights? This is not a trivial question as, presumably, the bill doesn't limit the genome=person clause to solely those organisms capable of independent life as that would keep early abortion legal. I've looked for the text of the bill online and have not been able to find it* so I can't say for sure if this issue is dealt with but, really, I doubt it.

Beyond the absurd task of figuring out which of my tissues could register to vote independent of the rest of me, there is the weirdly complex matter of defining just what the hell having a human genome means. You see, we're closely related to a number of other non-human species at a genetic level. Chimpanzees, for example, share between 94% and 99% of our DNA.** Indeed, some researchers apparently think chimps should be re-classified as members of the genus homo along with humans. So... do they have a "human genome" or not? What's the standard? Is 94% close enough? How about 99%? What about 99.5%? And how close do we have to shave the number before we start accidentally eliminating members of the human race who have various mutations or other genetic disorders? Determining the lines of demarcation between different species is a notoriously difficult problem and, really, I don't think we want the legislature of North-fucking-Dakota settling the matter by fiat.

But, hey, in the magical land of North Dakota a garbageman*** is qualified to decide complex issues in biology. Great.

* I did, however, find the page of this bill's sponsor Dan Ruby, who appears to own his own garbage company and is married with ten children. Yeah- ten. If you're interested, you can e-mail him at or call him at 701-852-6132 but please keep in mind that I am encouraging legitimate political expression only. Don't call him names or otherwise harass him.

** And it appears in the case of the lower figure that some of the differences are in non-coding segments of DNA that, essentially, aren't expressed in either chimps or humans.

*** Yes, he's in the waste disposal business. Didn't you read the first footnote?

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