updated 3/24/2006 8:54:02 PM ET 2006-03-25T01:54:02

Opponents of South Dakota’s new ban on nearly all abortions began a petition drive Friday to let voters decide its fate.

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The law, among the strictest in the nation, is scheduled to take effect July 1 but will automatically be placed on hold if opponents collect the 16,728 signatures necessary for a voter referendum.

In announcing the drive at a news conference, State Rep. Elaine Roberts said she doesn’t believe lawmakers have represented the will of the people.

“The vast majority of South Dakotans are somewhere in the middle,” Roberts said. “They have mixed feelings on this issue.”

The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, the coalition of groups opposed to the law, has until June 19 to collect the signatures and get the measure on the November ballot. The secretary of state’s office received initial paperwork signed by a lead opponent, Dr. Maria Bell.

The new law bans abortion in all cases except when necessary to save a woman’s life, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The measure was aimed at sparking a court fight that supporters hope will lead to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established the right to an abortion.

Opponents complain the South Dakota legislation is too extreme.

But Leslee Unruh, an anti-abortion advocate in Sioux Falls, said the petition drive is a slap in the face of the legislative process. Supporters of the ban will turn the petition battle into an educational campaign, she said.

“I think that it’s a great chance for South Dakota people to be informed about how abortion hurts women and what abortion does to the child,” Unruh said Friday.

An out-of-state group filed a similar petition last week, but South Dakota activists asked the Wisconsin-based Basic-Abortion-Rights Network to bow out so they could start their own drive.

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