BISMARCK — A bill penalizing North Dakota’s universities for associating with abortion providers or supporters will be making its way to the governor’s desk after the Senate voted in its favor on Monday, April 26.
In a 35-11 vote, the North Dakota Senate advanced Senate Bill 2030 one step closer to becoming law. If Gov. Doug Burgum vetoes the bill when it reaches his desk, the Legislature would likely have the two-thirds majority needed in each chamber to overturn his veto based on how they voted in support of the bill.
The bill states the 11 universities under the North Dakota University System cannot partner with an entity that provides or supports abortion. If a university does so, they will be penalized $2.8 million, and the person who signs a contract with the abortion-supporting organization will be criminally charged, facing a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.
Amendments punishing universities with ties to abortion were adopted after multiple lawmakers were dissatisfied by a federal grant awarded to North Dakota State University. The grant uses federal funds to teach at-risk youth evidence-based curricula about safe sex and healthy sexuality. The program is taught and administered by Planned Parenthood, which is the nation’s largest abortion provider.
On Monday, multiple lawmakers testified on the floor in support and opposition of the bill, with many voicing their moral objections to NDSU partnering with Planned Parenthood.
“All this does is say you should not and cannot cooperate with or work with or partner with an organization that chooses abortion over live birth. Period,” said Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, on the Senate floor.
Other lawmakers said they are worried about the negative effects the bill could have on higher education in North Dakota, particularly the accreditation of universities in the state. Universities receive accreditation when they meet certain academic standards, and if the bill is passed it could put some universities' accreditation into jeopardy because the bill could infringe on academic freedom.
With the passage of the bill also comes legal questions, especially in light of a recent free speech bill Burgum signed into law earlier this month. The bill bans activity fee funding discrimination based on a student organization’s beliefs and allows speakers on campus regardless of their views.
If enacted into law, Senate Bill 2030 could violate the recently adopted campus free speech law, said Lisa Johnson, vice chancellor of academic and student affairs for the North Dakota University System, at a committee hearing earlier this month.
More than 1,400 students, staff and faculty members signed a petition expressing their opposition to the bill's abortion amendments, and NDSU students and faculty members held a rally on the NDSU campus last week to show support for academic freedom.
If the bill is signed into law, faculty members say it could act as a slippery slope for lawmakers to intervene into any university research they find objectionable. These concerns were sent to Burgum last week in a letter written by NDSU associate professor and Faculty Senate president Florin Salajan.
“There can be no doubt that this precedent-setting action, if left standing, will reverberate negatively throughout (the North Dakota University System) for decades to come,” Salajan wrote. “It will make our higher education institutions subservient to the political whims of legislators, no longer enjoying the autonomy to engage in unimpeded research.”
Advocates for the bill said they had told NDSU repeatedly to sever ties with Planned Parenthood, which is why a penalty is needed.
Molly Secor-Turner, an NDSU professor who conducts the safe sex education research for at-risk youth like Native Americans, homeless youth and those in areas with high teen pregnancy rates, has been conducting her research through the federal grant for almost 10 years. The grant requires the curricula to be taught by an entity in the region that meets federal regulations, and Planned Parenthood is the only one that does so, Secor-Turner said.
Salajan in his letter urged Burgum to veto the bill when it reaches his desk.
“As an NDSU alumnus, you have experienced first-hand the tangible and intangible rewards of an academic environment at our institution unencumbered by blatant political interference,” Salajan wrote. “How you respond will signal whether North Dakota believes in increasing government censorship or truly values the protection of academic freedom enshrined in state law, along with the benefits that derive from it to all North Dakotans.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.