updated 3/7/2006 6:14:59 PM ET 2006-03-07T23:14:59

South Dakota has opted for a sweeping abortion ban and Mississippi may soon follow, but for now, few other states seem eager to join in an all-out challenge of Roe v. Wade. Instead, many legislatures continue to chip away at abortion access while awaiting the outcome of legal and electoral showdowns.

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In Missouri, the anti-abortion governor and largest anti-abortion group have expressed tactical doubts about a new proposal to prohibit most abortions. In Georgia and Oklahoma, states where anti-abortion sentiment is high, lawmakers are debating bills that would add new hurdles for women seeking abortion but are not considering bans.

Even some anti-abortion activists elated by South Dakota’s new law are unsure whether it will survive the legal challenges that could put it before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are hopeful that it will (survive), but even if it does not, it is absolutely worth trying,” said Stephen Peroutka, a Maryland attorney who chairs the National Pro-Life Action Center.

On the other side, the South Dakota ban has galvanized abortion-rights activists and given some of them the hope of regaining political momentum in this year’s general election.

Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said she was confident that Roe v. Wade — the 1973 Supreme Court ruling establishing the right to abortion — would survive, and suggested that some of her adversaries shared that view.

“Many anti-choice advocates think a frontal assault on Roe, the way South Dakota is proceeding, is a mistake,” she said Tuesday. “The law will not go into effect, ... and if the Supreme Court does hear the case and reaffirms Roe, they will have suffered a major setback.”

Ban prohibits almost all abortions
South Dakota’s ban, signed into law Monday by Gov. Mike Rounds, would prohibit all abortions except those necessary to save a mother’s life. The Mississippi measure, expected to win final legislative approval soon, makes additional exceptions for cases of rape and incest.


Abortions-rights activists in each state plan legal challenges that would prevent the bans from taking effect indefinitely. Proponents vow to defend the new laws, hoping the legal fight will eventually lead to Supreme Court reversal of Roe.

Yet the National Right to Life Committee — one of the country’s leading anti-abortion groups — has declined to embrace the South Dakota strategy. Instead, it notes that the nine-member Supreme Court, even with the recent addition of conservatives John Roberts and Samuel Alito, still has a majority of at least five justices who support Roe.

That caution also was apparent in Missouri last week after a state senator introduced a pair of ballot measures that would ban virtually all abortions.

“We’re obviously in favor of a ban on abortion; that is our ultimate goal. But we are concerned about the timing,” said Patty Skain, executive director of Missouri Right to Life.

Republican Gov. Matt Blunt also distanced himself from the proposed ban.

Reducing abortions the first goal
“I’m not convinced it’s necessary,” Blunt said. “We need to really focus on the legislation that will reduce the number of abortions in our state — not just set up court battles.”

Tactics aside, some conservative leaders were heartened that politicians in South Dakota and Mississippi were ready to challenge long-standing Supreme Court precedent.

“I don’t necessarily endorse it as a strategy to overturn Roe — it does not look as if the votes are there (on the high court),” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

“But I don’t think that should be the only basis on which legislators make decisions,” Perkins added. “It’s more important that they quit looking into the judicial crystal ball and exercise their responsibility to be policy makers.”

Were the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, 20 or more states might ban virtually all abortions, others would allow them to continue unfettered, and a middle group might impose additional restrictions on abortion access.

New requirements proposed
Such efforts to discourage abortions are proceeding vigorously this year — a measure in Georgia would require doctors to offer women seeking abortions a look at an image of the fetus; an Oklahoma bill would require a women considering abortion after 20 weeks to be informed that her fetus could feel pain.

Peter Brownlie, executive director of a Planned Parenthood branch serving Kansas and Missouri, said he has observed a tactical split among abortion opponents, with some preferring the incremental approach and others supporting the South Dakota-style all-out assault.

His own abortion-rights group, meanwhile, is suddenly getting support from new sources.

“We’re hearing from people we haven’t typically heard from,” Brownlie said. “Not your usual pro-choice advocates, but people who believe government shouldn’t be interfering in these personal decisions and are alarmed by what they’re seeing.”

Susan Hill, who runs the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, also said there had been an upsurge of support because of the bans.

“Every move that’s this alarming has it a price to pay for it,” she said. “There’s a president with low polls, people upset with the Republicans — this might not be the perfect time to start the abortion battle, with the right wing not at the top of its game.”

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