South Dakota Lawmakers Revive Abortion Ban Bill

Lawmakers who watched as a near-total ban on abortions failed in South Dakota voting booths last year have revived the legislation with changes that may make the difference in public acceptance. But the bill's success is far from assured.

None of the Legislature's leaders, notably some sponsors of last year's bill, are joining the effort this year because waging last year's fight was so exhausting.

"It's far too soon to put our state through something of such a difficult nature again," said Democratic Sen. Julie Bartling, a prime sponsor of last year's abortion bill.

"The state needs to heal, and I just don't feel that we need to take this up in this legislative session again," she added. "The people have spoken."

The bill introduced in January includes exceptions for victims of rape or incest and if continuing the pregnancy would harm the woman's health significantly.

Last year's ban exempted only abortions needed to save a woman's life, and the lack of more exceptions was cited when voters repealed the ban in November. Public opinion polls have shown that a ban with rape and incest exceptions would pass muster with South Dakotans.

A chief sponsor of the current bill, Republican Rep. Gordon Howie, said legislators must not lose their momentum and noted that the repeal passed with only 56 percent of the vote.

"What the voters told us was that they were uncomfortable with the rape and incest circumstances. And so this bill is one that was specifically designed for the majority of South Dakotans or with them in mind," Howie said.

The bill would allow rape victims to get abortions if they report the rapes to police within 50 days. Doctors would have to confirm those reports with police; doctors also would have to give blood from aborted fetuses to police for DNA testing in rape and incest cases.

In the case of incest, a doctor and the woman would have to report the identity of the alleged perpetrator to police before an abortion could be done.

Abortions could be done only until the 17th week of pregnancy in cases of incest and rape.

Opponents of both bills say this year's bill carries onerous reporting provisions for victims of sex crimes.

"Rather than helping rape and incest survivors, this bill does nothing more than re-victimize them by forcing them and their families into a web of government bureaucracy and intrusion," said Kate Looby, state director of Planned Parenthood in South Dakota. "Under this bill, the victim's privacy and confidentiality are lost entirely."

About 800 abortions are done each year in South Dakota, nearly all of them at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Sioux Falls, the state's largest city.

Howie and others who support this year's bill hope it can become a legal avenue that could cause the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortions.

Utah also has legislation in progress that would ban abortion except for rape, incest and saving the mother's health, and the bill would set up a trust fund to pay for the expected court challenge.

The Mississippi Legislature, which last year considered a near-ban, this year also added exemptions for rape or incest. Both versions allowed abortions to save a mother's life, but not her health.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican who signed the near-ban last year, said he was not prepared to say whether he would sign the current version.

Bartling doubts it will even pass both legislative chambers. Although support appears strong in the House, she doubts sentiment is the same in the Senate State Affairs Committee. Testimony on the bill was scheduled to start Monday.

"I just don't think it'll make it to the Senate floor," Bartling said. "I've even talked to very pro-life Republican legislators that are not in favor of bringing it back this year. I think it's just too soon."

Heather DeWit, 26, an after-school program director in Sioux Falls, said she's glad lawmakers have revived the abortion issue. Dewit voted in favor of last year's bill in November.

"I think they should look at it again and maybe look at it in a different way, with the exceptions, if that's what they think it'll take to get it through," DeWit said. "I don't necessarily think the exceptions are needed, but it seems like the voters want to see that."