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South Dakota Bans Abortion

docta seuss

TRIBE Member
NY Times

Gov. Michael Rounds of South Dakota signed into law the nation's most sweeping state abortion ban on Monday, an intentional provocation meant to set up a direct legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 United States Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal.

The law makes it a felony to perform any abortion except in a case of a pregnant woman's life being in jeopardy. Though the law is not scheduled to go into effect until July, officials working at the state's only abortion clinic, in Sioux Falls, where about 800 abortions take place each year, said they spent much of the day consoling women.

"This is a very real issue for a lot of people," said Kate Looby, state director of Planned Parenthood. "That's the part I think the legislators don't quite understand."

Mr. Rounds, a Republican, said in a statement after signing the legislation in Pierre that it was the right thing to do. The law will force a legal showdown before it ever comes into effect, an outcome its supporters, eager to overturn Roe, intended.

"In the history of the world, the true test of a civilization is how well people treat the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society," the governor said. "The sponsors and supporters of this bill believe that abortion is wrong because unborn children are the most vulnerable and most helpless persons in our society. I agree with them."

Around the country, abortion rights advocates responded with fury, calling the new law "blatantly unconstitutional," dangerous and counter to what a majority of Americans would support. Planned Parenthood, which operates the abortion clinic in South Dakota, pledged to use any means necessary — whether a federal lawsuit or a statewide referendum — to sideline the statute.

Under state law, if opponents collect 16,728 signatures of registered voters in the next three months the law will be delayed and a vote held on the issue in November.

"We're trying to evaluate the timing and the options now, but we're committed to making sure this does not come into effect," Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a telephone interview. "It's a sad day for the women of South Dakota. We had really hoped that the governor would weigh women's health as more important than politics."

Leaders on each side of the abortion debate said South Dakota's law had stirred new support and fervor for their causes. Abortion rights advocates reported a flood of donations, volunteers and membership requests since the abortion bill began drawing national attention last month.

Opponents said they, too, had had a flood of calls, including numerous donations to a defense fund to fight what is expected to be expensive litigation on behalf of South Dakota.

Already, the state's move seems to have emboldened legislators opposed to abortion elsewhere. For months, similar bills had been proposed in the statehouses of at least a half-dozen states, including Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee, but some efforts have gained steam in the weeks since the South Dakota Legislature overwhelmingly passed its ban.

"Legislators feel that now is the time to wrestle back their authority from the courts," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, based in Washington. "The courts have overstepped their bounds on issues like gay marriage, and the legislators are speaking up."

In Mississippi, an abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother passed the House on Thursday. In Missouri, legislation that would outlaw all abortions except to save the life of the mother was proposed last week.

But opponents of abortion have split over South Dakota's approach, a fact that Mr. Rounds acknowledged in recent weeks as he weighed whether to sign the legislation.

Some, including those who led efforts to pass the ban in South Dakota, said they considered this the ideal time to return the central question of Roe to the Supreme Court. State Representative Roger Hunt, who sponsored the bill in South Dakota, pointed to the appointments of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both conservatives, and what he described as the "strong possibility" of the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens in the near future and the naming of a conservative as his successor.

"This is our time," Mr. Hunt said on Monday.

Other national anti-abortion groups, though, have quietly disagreed with the timing, pressing instead to cut down on abortions by creating restrictions that may be more palatable to a wider audience, restrictions like parental and spousal notification laws and clinic regulations. If the Supreme Court upholds Roe, they have argued, the damage for those opposed to abortion rights will be grave.

"As much as this isn't the best strategic thing to do, it's there and it's the law of South Dakota now," said Daniel S. McConchie, vice president of Americans United for Life, another group. "We'll defend our position now — which is to oppose abortion."

Cristina Minniti, a spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee, said no one from her organization was available to be interviewed on the South Dakota law. Instead, she issued a one paragraph statement which stated, in part: "Currently there are at least five votes, a majority, on the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Roe v. Wade."

Mr. Rounds, who became governor in 2003 after serving in the South Dakota Senate for a decade, declined to speak with reporters after the signing. In an earlier interview, he said that he personally felt uncertain about the timing of a challenge to Roe, but that he was leaning toward signing the bill, in part because he did not wish to divide the people who, like him, oppose abortion.

In the statement he issued on Monday, Mr. Rounds said he fully expected the law to be challenged, and that it might wind up in the nation's highest court. He compared the possibility of a reversal on Roe to that of the changing legal precedents around segregation.

"The reversal of a Supreme Court opinion is possible," the governor said. "For example, in 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case that a state could require racial segregation in public facilities if the facilities offered to different races were equal. However, 58 years later, the Supreme Court reconsidered that opinion and reversed itself in Brown vs. Board of Education."