S.D. Voters May Decide Abortion Ban

South Dakota touched off a national tempest with its strict new abortion ban, but the law also fomented a local grassroots movement and opened a schism in the state’s dominant Republican Party.

In a state with only one abortion clinic staffed by a doctor who visits from Minnesota, the issue now is poised to dominate this year’s state elections, in which the governor’s office and all 35 state Senate seats and 70 House seats are on the ballot.

The new law–intended to set up a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court landmark ruling legalizing abortion–makes it a felony for anyone to help a woman end her pregnancy, even in cases of rape and incest or when the woman’s physical or mental health is at risk. The law only permits abortion when it is necessary to save a woman’s life.

Opponents are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to overturn the law. Republican legislators who voted for South Dakota’s ban are attracting both Democratic and Republican campaign challengers. And Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, who signed the bill on March 6, has seen his support drop 20 percent, according to state polls.

If the ballot initiative fails and the law takes effect, the tribal president of the Oglala Sioux Indian Nation in South Dakota–territory that would be immune to the state law–already has vowed to build an abortion clinic on the reservation for all women in the state.

Planned Parenthood is poised to file suit in federal district court if the law is not overturned.

“An overwhelming majority of South Dakotans believe that the governor and the Legislature went too far. This legislation is extreme and does not reflect the values of South Dakotans who want families to be able to make personal decisions about health care without government interference,” said Jan Nicolay, former Republican lawmaker and spokesperson for the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families.

Nicolay’s group, formed immediately after the law’s passage by citizens, doctors, clergy and Republican politicians, launched a campaign to overturn the law with a ballot initiative. If the necessary signatures are collected by June 19, the law will be suspended pending the outcome of the November election.

Meanwhile, in Statehouse primaries, Republican lawmakers who voted for the abortion ban are being challenged by more moderate Republicans who opposed the ban because they considered it too restrictive and an intrusion into people’s private lives.

As Republicans feud, Democrats are filing for legislative seats in record numbers, “their strongest showing in 10 years,” according to Robert Burns, political scientist with South Dakota State University in Brookings.

“If it turns out to be a Democratic year nationwide, the governor’s race could be closer than was anticipated prior to signing the abortion law,” Burns said. Two Democrats, former state Rep. Jack Billion and former South Dakota Farmers Union president Dennis Wiese, are campaigning against the one-term Republican incumbent.

Although voters will be considering 11 other ballot initiatives, including a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and a controversial change to the state’s cattle and hog feedlot zoning rules, the abortion law is expected to dominate, Burns said.

The Republican-dominated Legislature approved the same abortion ban two years ago, but Rounds vetoed it because of concerns that the measure would nullify the state’s other anti-abortion laws while the courts considered the case.

Following Rounds’ veto, a legislative task force of hard-line and moderate Republicans and a few Democrats attempted to hammer out a new state abortion policy everyone could agree on. But according to newspaper editorials and other published accounts, strict anti- abortionists dominated the often combative group, and their “absolutist” view prevailed, Burns said.

The result was the same law the governor vetoed two years ago, but with legal language that insulates the state’s numerous other abortion restrictions.

Although a majority of South Dakota lawmakers are opposed to abortion, many say a total ban is too restrictive. Citizens are especially concerned about the potential effect on children who become pregnant and on victims of rape and incest, Nicolay said.

Campaign for Healthy Families, although hastily organized, is expected to gather the 16,728 signatures required to put the issue on the ballot. With nearly 700 volunteers canvassing more than 100 communities and 40 percent of the signatures in hand, “there’s no doubt we’ll get the signatures,” Nicolay said. “The next step is educating everyone. We know we have a big job ahead of us,” she said.

The state has established a legal defense fund for donations to help defend the law in court. So far, the fund has received approximately $11,000 so far, primarily from out-of-state donors. If the issue makes it to the ballot, money from national pro- and anti- abortion groups is expected to pour into the state.

Supporters of the bill say the time is right to ask the high court to return the abortion issue to the states. With a more conservative line-up since the Bush administration’s appointments of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, the law’s proponents wager they have a shot at getting Roe v. Wade overturned.

But other South Dakota abortion foes argue there still are not enough anti-abortion votes on the court and worry that the strategy could backfire, hindering future state efforts to limit or outlaw abortion.

“I think that it is better policy in 2006 to be passing legislation that can be enforced and that can protect women and minors from the physical and psychological risks of abortion,” such as requirements for parental notification and fetal pain warnings, said Clarke Forsythe, Director of the anti-abortion advocacy group Americans United for Life.

A clear majority of Americans say they do not approve of South Dakota’s abortion law and do not want Roe v. Wade to be overturned. A March 2006 survey by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, for example, showed that 58 percent of Americans oppose the idea of extending South Dakota’s abortion ban nationwide.

In South Dakota, a January 2006 state poll by Survey USA showed a nearly even split between the number of people who oppose abortion (48 percent) and those who believe in a woman’s right to an abortion (47 percent). After the law was signed, a survey by state polling firm Robinson & Muenster reported 57 percent were opposed to the law, 35 percent supported it and 8 percent were undecided.

Nationally, lawmakers in Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Mississippi considered but failed to approve South Dakota-like abortion bans before their legislative sessions ended this year. Six states–Rhode Island, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana–continue to consider bills that defy Roe v. Wade by banning most abortions.

Louisiana lawmakers are considering an abortion ban that would take effect only if Roe v. Wade were overturned or the U.S. Constitution were amended to allow states to prohibit abortion. Proposed bans in Ohio, Rhode Island and South Carolina are even more restrictive than the South Dakota law, prohibiting all abortions with no exceptions.

Contact Christine Vestal at [email protected].

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