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Personhood measure backers respond to end-of-life claims

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BISMARCK — Supporters of a North Dakota ballot measure aimed at banning abortion are preparing to distribute a “white paper” to counter what they claim are misleading statements by opponents about the measure’s potential impact on end-of-life health care decisions.

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Voters will decide Nov. 4 on the proposed constitutional amendment, which states: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

A group backing the measure, ND Choose Life, has assembled a four-page document that cites state and federal law and past court decisions in an attempt to refute opponents’ claims that the measure could interfere with end-of-life health decisions and directives.

The paper will be sent to most North Dakota churches and “tens of thousands” of voters in ND Choose Life’s database, spokeswoman Shelle Aberle said.

It was prompted in part by a July 16 opinion letter in the Grand Forks Herald by Steven Morrison, a member of North Dakotans Against Measure 1 and assistant law professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law, as well as other letters to the editor.

Morrison — who said he was speaking individually as an expert in constitutional law — called the personhood amendment a “vaguely worded provision” and warned that it could result in criminal charges against someone who orders a doctor to disconnect life support according to their spouse’s living will.

He also disputes proponents’ claims that the amendment won’t affect existing laws, saying “constitutional provisions render statutes unconstitutional all the time.”

Rodger Wetzel, a retired social worker, former eldercare director at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck and one of 14 people who signed on to the white paper, said opponents are trying “to create doubt without substantive legal background” and that federal and state law “very clearly” recognize a patient’s right to determine their own health care.

Proponents point to a section of state law that says adults have the right to make decisions relating to their own health care, “including the decision to have health care provided, withheld, or withdrawn,” and another section that authorizes health care directives by the patient or someone appointed to make those decisions for the patient.

“One can take one’s personal opinion, or one can say, ‘What does our state and federal law currently state?’” Wetzel said.

Morrison said the right to make medical decisions isn’t absolute under the U.S. Constitution, and that he’s not claiming the personhood amendment will or won’t render the state statutes unconstitutional.

“What I’m saying is it could, and it’s going to be up to the courts to determine the scope of the effect of Measure 1,” he said, predicting that, if passed, the amendment will lead to a lot of legal challenges “in many different areas of the law.”

The 2013 Legislature passed a resolution putting the measure on the ballot, with Republicans accounting for all 26 “yes” votes in the Senate and all but three of the 57 “yes” votes in the House.

Others listed on the white paper include attorney and state Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, Rep. Karen Rohr, R-Mandan, North Dakota Catholic Conference general counsel Christopher Dodson and former Lt. Gov. Rosemarie Myrdal.

Aberle said the white paper will be posted at www.ndchooselife.com. Morrison’s letter can be found at http://ndam1.org/2014/07/28/must-read-piece-grand-forks-herald-measure-1....

Nowatzki is a reporter for Forum News Service. Contact him at 701-255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.

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Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.
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