BISMARCK — The North Dakota Legislature is trying to suppress academic freedom even though they don't fully understand the issue at the heart of their efforts, multiple academic faculty members and advocates said on Tuesday, April 13.
The North Dakota Women's Network on Tuesday held a virtual press conference where advocates expressed their concerns with the North Dakota Legislature's efforts through Senate Bill 2030 to punish state universities who partner with any entity that supports or promotes abortion. Lawmakers recently approved a $2.8 million reduction in state funds and, if such partnerships occur, a maximum penalty for faculty or staff members of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.
Conversations among lawmakers about the penalties for a partnership with an abortion provider or supporter indicate their efforts to punish universities are specifically targeted at North Dakota State University and a federal research grant that teaches youth evidence-based sex education.
Molly Secor-Turner, an NDSU associate professor, has overseen a sex education program for almost 10 years that aims to teach at-risk youth about safe sex and healthy sexuality. The education program is taught by Planned Parenthood, which instructs youth using an evidence-based curriculum from the U.S. Department of Human Services.
"At the end of the day, it really just is a collection of legislators who have made this into an abortion issue and have decided to use this as a means of taking a stand against abortion," Secor-Turner said. "Abortion isn't a part of any of the education that is being provided."
Video footage of legislative committee meetings also indicate North Dakota lawmakers do not understand how the grant process or faculty research works at universities, multiple speakers said Tuesday.
Lawmakers have objections to the federal grant's partnership with Planned Parenthood for the education program because they have moral objections to Planned Parenthood, and if passed the bill would set a dangerous precedent for North Dakota's Legislature to interfere with future research that they could one day deem immoral, the advocates said.
Natasha Rosario, an NDSU student and intern for Planned Parenthood North Central States, said she choose to enroll in NDSU because she thought the university would prepare her for life after college. If the bill passes, her internship program will be terminated.
"When I came to NDSU, I assumed that I would be able to make educational choices that fit with my interests and goals," Rosario said. "It appears that I was wrong."
More than 1,000 people have signed a petition asking North Dakota lawmakers to remove the bill's penalties and amendments that refer to abortion.
Many of the people who signed it said they do not support abortion, but the way the Legislature is trying to restrict what researchers can and cannot research is not acceptable, said Liz Legerski, an associate professor and Senate chair at the University of North Dakota.
"I am pleasantly surprised by the number of people who have left comments that say, 'While I am personally pro-life, I have concerns about this legislation because I think that our politicians should not be infringing on the federal research programs of our faculty.'"
Senate Bill 2030 passed the House last week in a 66-25 vote and was sent to the Senate for further consideration.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.