Azariah Dileo, Class of 2024, Belmont Law
On April 6, 2023, North Dakota enacted a new law titled “Growth and development and human sexuality curriculum.” The law passed in the state Senate with a vote 37-9 at the end of March and in the House on April 4, with a vote 75-16. Two days later, on April 6, current Governor Doug Burgum, signed the bill into state law. With an overwhelming majority vote in both houses, the North Dakota legislature intends to enhance how school districts educate about fetal human development.
The new law, on its face, is not explicitly pro- or anti-abortion. State Senator Janne Myrdal drafted the new law after seeing “Baby Olivia,” which is a video showing human (fetal) development in utero. Senator Myrdal, reflecting on the law, stated that “human development in the womb was obviously part of science” and that it was also “what [she] would call a divine concept.” Through the new law, Senator Myrdal hoped to “show students the divine journey that every human being experiences.”
The new law requires that a North Dakota school district include discussion and instruction about human growth and development in their health curriculum and human sexuality instruction. School districts’ human biology and pregnancy instruction must include an ultrasound video three minutes long, at minimum, discussing fertilization and showing vital fetal organ formation during the early stages of pregnancy. The brain, heart, sex organs are among the vital organs that the new law specifically requires the ultrasound video to show. In addition to organ formation during early pregnancy, the video must also discuss all stages of fetal cell growth and organ development throughout each week of pregnancy until birth.
The “Baby Olivia” video that inspired Senator Myrdal meets the criteria of the new law. When introducing the, now, law to her fellow senators, Senator Myrdal presented the “Baby Olivia” fetal development animation as a model that school districts could use to meet the proposed law’s requirements. Live Action, the creator of the “Baby Olivia” video, takes a firm pro-life stance. Live Action’s goal, through the “Baby Olivia” video and its other endeavors, is to shift public opinion about ending fetal life by emphasizing the humanity of the fetal, preborn child.
Live Action’s advocacy, which ultimately led to the new North Dakota law, is a microcosm of the influence that people and organizations can have on the legislative process. Legislatures, as democratically elected officials, theoretically represent the opinions of the public. In 2019, Pew Research Center released a study analyzing whether state abortion laws were reflective of public opinion about abortion in each state. The data that Pew Research used came from the 2014 Religious Landscape Study which derived its results from asking 35,000 adults across the United States whether they thought abortion should be legal or illegal in all or most cases. The 2014 data revealed that the people of North Dakota do not have a majority stance pro- or anti-abortion, but rather have more of an equal split in public opinion regarding the topic.
North Dakota’s new law about fetal-human growth and development reveals that North Dakota’s legislative body generally reflects its state’s opinions about abortion. The new law does not specifically advocate for or against abortion. Nonetheless, the law has undertones that respect both pro- and anti-abortion sentiments: it advocates that students, in a K-12 school context, be more fully equipped with scientific knowledge about human development pre-birth. With more knowledge about fetal development, those who passed the law hope to allow North Dakotan youth to make more fully informed reproductive decisions as they mature into adults.