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Abortion showdown looms after S. Dakota ban

A near-total ban on abortions in South Dakota has been signed into law, a measure the governor called a “direct frontal assault” on the U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize the practice 33 years ago.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A near-total ban on abortions in South Dakota has been signed into law, a measure the governor called a “direct frontal assault” on the U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize the practice 33 years ago.

Supporters and opponents of abortion rights had been gearing up for a showdown even before Gov. Mike Rounds added his signature to the bill Monday and both sides expected a lengthy battle.

“We fully intend to challenge this law,” said Kate Looby, state director of Planned Parenthood, which operates the state’s only abortion clinic. “It’s just a question of how.”

The bill would make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless the procedure was necessary to save the woman’s life. It would make no exception for cases of rape or incest but such victims could get emergency contraception.

Under the new law, doctors could get up to five years in prison for performing an illegal abortion.

A judge is likely to suspend the abortion ban before it is due to take effect July 1, which means it wouldn’t change state policy unless the case gets all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and the state wins.

Court more likely to overturn Roe?
The Legislature passed the bill last month after supporters argued that the recent appointment of conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito have made the Supreme Court more likely to overturn 1973’s Roe v. Wade.

While Rounds said he personally believes it would be better to chip away at abortion one step at a time rather than directly confront Roe v. Wade, he said many abortion opponents think otherwise.

“Personally I think this court will be more interested in looking at different aspects of Roe v. Wade rather than the direct frontal assault, but we’ll never know unless someone tries,” Rounds said.

Rob Regier, executive director of the South Dakota Family Policy Council, commended Rounds’ decision. “His signature marks the beginning of a renewed effort to abolish abortion in our country,” Regier said.

Some other states are considering similar bans on abortion, and the South Dakota legislation will have an impact in other states, said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“We see that this is about more than just South Dakota. It’s about the country,” Keenan said. “The bottom line in all of it is elections matter.”

‘Ugly campaign’
Planned Parenthood has not yet decided whether to challenge the measure in court or to seek a statewide public vote in November. A referendum would either repeal the abortion ban or delay a court challenge to the legislation.

“Obviously, we’re very disappointed that Gov. Rounds has sided on the side of politics rather than on the side of the women of South Dakota to protect their health and safety,” Looby said.

If the bill is put to a statewide vote, the battle is likely to be nasty, said Thelma Underberg, executive director of National Abortion Rights Action League Pro-Choice South Dakota.

“It could be an ugly campaign,” Underberg said.

In the meantime, Planned Parenthood will remain open to provide services that include family planning, emergency contraception and safe and legal abortions, Looby said.

About 800 abortions are performed each year in South Dakota. Planned Parenthood has said other women cross state lines to reach clinics.

The abortion bill earlier this month passed the House 50-18 and the Senate by 23-12. For the most part, Republicans have dominated the Statehouse since the 1970s.

State Democratic Rep. Pat Haley voted against the measure, saying that while he opposes abortion he could not vote for the bill because it contains an exception only for the life of a woman.

“Not allowing an exception for rape, incest and the health of the mother is a radical position,” he said. “Most of the people who have talked to me about this think that this is a very foolish piece of legislation, and most of those people are pro-life.”

But Leslee Unruh, founder of the Alpha Center that provides counseling to pregnant women and those who have had abortion, said the governor’s decision to sign the bill is a victory for women.

“We finally have been heard,” said Unruh. “We are so excited. We’re ordering lobster and having a party. We are thrilled.”