FARGO — In the barrage of barbs between U.S. Senate candidates Rick Berg and Heidi Heitkamp, one issue has been conspicuously absent, given how outsiders have highlighted Berg’s 2007 vote for a bill that would have criminalized abortion and made it punishable by life in prison, regardless of circumstances such as rape or incest.
Salon.com, BuzzFeed and a number of other websites reported on Berg’s vote in the dust-up over the “legitimate rape” comment made last month by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who also is running for Senate.
But Heitkamp, a Democrat, has remained mum on the vote by her Republican opponent, a first-term congressman who voted for the bill as a state lawmaker.
When asked why via e-mail, a campaign spokesman responded that Berg’s voting record in the Legislature is a matter of public record, “and that vote has been covered pretty extensively.”
The campaign is focusing on the national economy, energy and the farm bill, spokesman Liam Forsythe said in the statement.
“There are plenty of divisive issues, but Congress should put partisanship aside, do what’s right for the country and focus on where we can reach agreements to strengthen our economy,” he said.
Berg’s campaign had a different take on why Heitkamp hasn’t jumped on the issue.
Spokesman Chris Van Guilder said Heitkamp’s liberal views “are opposite of those held by the majority of North Dakotans, and she continues to make every effort to avoid those ties here in North Dakota.”
He criticized Heitkamp for campaigning with what he called “radical pro-abortion groups” Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, the latter of which is dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women.
Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said “there’s no particular advantage” for Heitkamp, a former attorney general, to bring up abortion in a conservative state with well-organized anti-abortion forces.
“You’re not going to get much traction, I think, screaming pro-choice,” he said.
Berg was North Dakota‘s House majority leader in January 2007 when the Fargo businessman voted in favor of House Bill 1489.
The bill would have added a new section to state law that read in part: “A person is guilty of a class AA felony if the person intentionally destroys or terminates the life of a preborn child.”
North Dakota’s maximum penalty for Class AA felonies – a category that includes murder and certain cases of rape – is life in prison without parole.
(The bill didn’t explicitly include or exclude the mother from such a penalty. One of its sponsors, Sen. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, indicated the intent wasn’t to prosecute mothers. “I don’t think prosecutors are going to be going after the mother, when they need her testimony to go and convict the person who is performing the abortion,” he testified to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22, 2007.)
Some websites reported that the bill made an exception for when the life of the mother is endangered, but that wasn’t specifically stated in the bill’s text. It stated: “Medical treatment provided to the mother by a licensed physician which may result in accidental or unintentional injury or death of the preborn child is not a violation of this section.”
The Judiciary Committee voted 13-0 to give the bill a do-not-pass recommendation. The bill failed on the House floor by a vote of 20-69, with Berg supporting it.
Later in the same session, Berg joined 67 House members in approving a so-called “trigger” bill that would outlaw most abortions in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court were to reverse Roe v. Wade.
The bill makes performing an abortion a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison. It contains exceptions for cases of rape and incest and to prevent the death of the pregnant female.
Asked to clarify Berg’s current stance on abortion, Van Guilder said Berg “believes in the miracle that is life and will continue to defend the unborn, elderly, and the infirm.”
“Rick believes in the exception for the life of the mother, and is actively involved with Fargo’s FirstChoice Clinic, which provides education and health services to women who find themselves in need of care and assistance,” Van Guilder said in an e-mail. His response didn’t address abortion in cases of rape or incest.
Heitkamp said in a statement that her position on the issue has remained the same.
“The bottom line is that we should not be putting politicians between women and their doctors when making these very personal family decisions,” she is quoted in the statement as saying. “I do not support public funding of abortions, and believe that late term abortions should be illegal except when necessary to save the life of the mother.”
While there may be no advantage for Heitkamp to bring up Berg’s vote, Jendrysik said, “at the same time, I think it’s clear you could spin this in a way that says, well, Berg’s votes have said that he’s unconcerned about women’s health, that he’s an ideologue, that he’s more concerned with scoring points with lobbyists and interest groups than dealing with real problems facing North Dakota’s women – you know, that kind of stuff is possible.
“But a full-throated defense of abortion rights is not going to get you anywhere in North Dakota.”
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