FARGO – Some women’s advocates complain that an anti-abortion “gag” provision was quietly slipped into a bill to combat human trafficking that passed the Senate last month.
The amendment to the bill, which still requires the House’s approval, would bar state money from being used to refer for or counsel human trafficking victims “in favor of abortion.”
The human trafficking bill passed the North Dakota Senate on a unanimous vote Feb. 20 and next will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee.
Opponents of the amendment are rallying their supporters to try to strip the amendment from the bill in the House.
Advocates contend that women who become pregnant through human trafficking have been coerced to perform sexual acts and therefore are rape victims who should have access to abortions.
“Victims of sexual trafficking are victims of rape, the worst kind imaginable,” Karla Rose Hanson of the North Dakota Women’s Network told The Forum Editorial Board Monday.
Some women or teenaged girls who are coerced into prostitution are forced into more than 1,800 sexual encounters in a year, she said, citing a figure in a news report.
The amendment, one of about seven changes made to the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, was proposed by the North Dakota Catholic Conference, which represents the dioceses of Fargo and Bismarck, said Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, who is chairman of the committee and presented them to the panel.
Robin Nelson of Fargo said the amendment, which was added after the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Senate Bill 2107, was stealthily added to avoid attracting controversy and opposition.
“I really think this is a back door way for these organizations to intrude on women’s health,” she said. “It snuck through the Senate. We need to stop it. It’s not transparent at all. It’s a sneak attack, in my opinion.”
But Hogue said the amendments were added in open committee before the bill was sent to the House floor, which is common in amending legislation after committee testimony.
Defenders of the amendment said the language is consistent with other laws in North Dakota that bar using money from the state or its political subdivisions to pay for an abortion or counseling presenting abortion as an option for pregnant women.
The North Dakota Catholic Conference posted an “action alert” in its online newsletter urging supporters to stop legislation it said was sought by the “abortion lobby.”
The bulletin said, in part, “Planned Parenthood and its abortion lobby are attempting to use the bill to expand abortion in North Dakota at taxpayer expense.”
The Catholic newsletter applauded the Senate action adding the amendment to ensure that “tax money intended to help victims of human trafficking will not be used to counsel in favor of or refer for, abortions.”
Hogue and Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said there has long been a consensus, both in the Legislature and among the public, opposing state money to pay for abortion services or counseling, except as provided by federal law.
That position merely was preserved by the amendment and is not, as the North Dakota Women’s Network advocates claim, contrary to voters’ overwhelming rejection in November of Measure 1, the so-called “personhood amendment” that recognized life at every stage, Hogue and Lee said.
“This is not a new deal,” Lee said, referring to the “gag” provision added to the human trafficking bill.
She added: “It’s not one that they’re going to win,” referring efforts to strip the amendment in the House. “That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t bring it up.”
Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, who carried the Senate Bill 2107 amendments to the Senate floor, acknowledged “wording dealing with the abortion situation.”
In her floor comments, Nelson said the language was workable.
“It’s open enough, however, to allow referrals elsewhere, if asked. This is the same or similar wording to things that are in numerous other parts of the code,” Nelson said.
“In the end, the main thing is we wanted to make this bill so it will be strong so we can go after those people that are out there preying on our young people,” she added, according to a video of her presentation.
Nelson was not available by phone for an interview Monday.
Amy Jacobson, North Dakota public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood, said the “gag” provision in the human trafficking bill will have broad ramifications.
“Anybody who gets state dollars would be gagged from telling” pregnant women they have the option of getting an abortion, Jacobson said.
Planned Parenthood does not perform abortions in North Dakota.
A spokeswoman for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo said the organization had no comment to offer Monday on the amendment.