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Ban signed by S.D. governor
Looming threat to legal abortion

March 17, 2006 | Page 7

ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports on South Dakota's all-out abortion ban--and its looming consequences.

IN WHAT he called a "direct frontal assault" on legal abortion, South Dakota Gov. Michael Rounds signed legislation that bans all abortions, except in cases where a woman may die.

The law carries at least a five-year sentence and $5,000 fine for doctors who dare to perform abortions for reasons other than the life of the woman--even her health or rape or incest.

Republican state Sen. Bill Napoli explained on PBS's NewsHour just how narrowly the woman's life exception would apply. "The girl was a virgin," Napoli said. "She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."

Neanderthal Republicans like Napoli aren't the only ones supporting this bill. Its main sponsor was Democratic state Sen. Julie Bartling. Five Democratic senators voted for the ban, one more than voted against it.

The ban represents a departure for the anti-abortion movement, whose strategy since Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized women's right to abortion, has been to limit women's access to abortion by passing restriction after restriction.

South Dakota already has a host of these restrictions. A woman must receive mandatory counseling and then wait 24 hours before she can get an abortion. If she is under the age of 16, she must notify a parent. Public funding for an abortion in South Dakota is only available when a woman's life is in danger.

Just one clinic in the state provides abortion services--a doctor is flown in from out of state once a week to perform abortion procedures. This clinic's services are crucial--particularly to poor women. According to Planned Parenthood, which runs the clinic in Sioux Falls, 76 percent of the patients are uninsured.

Despite the state's conservative climate, a 2004 Sioux Falls Argus Leader poll showed that 72 percent of those polls think some form of abortion should be legal.

South Dakota's all-out ban is scheduled to go into effect July 1, at which time there will likely be a legal challenge. The case could take years to get to the Supreme Court, but other states are already following in South Dakota's footsteps.

Mississippi legislators are going ahead with their own all-out ban, and similar legislation is on its way in Ohio, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee. That makes some 17 states that have laws on the books--some from before Roe--or bills under consideration that are similar to the South Dakota's ban.

The history of abortion laws shows that bans and criminalization will not stop women from seeking abortions. Instead, they will be subjected to illegal and unsafe abortions.

Some 46 million women around the world have abortions every year, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. About 60 percent of those women live in countries where abortion is broadly permitted. About 25 percent live in nations where abortion is banned or allowed only to save a woman's life.

According to the World Health Organization, some 19 million women have "unsafe" abortions each year--with the procedure performed by someone unskilled or in a place with poor medical standards. Some 600,000 women die from complications.

These are the facts that abortion opponents in the U.S. must be made to face as they move toward banning abortion.

The South Dakota law is awakening pro-choice forces to the fact that abortion is in peril.

Last week, Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, announced that she might run as an independent senate candidate in Pennsylvania against anti-abortion Republican Sen. Rick Santorum and the Democratic frontrunner to challenge Santorum, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who is also anti-choice. "He's a perfectly fine person, but not someone we can trust to defend our rights, not at all," Michelman told the Associated Press in response to Casey's announcement that he would have voted to confirm anti-choice justice Samuel Alito. "If that upsets the political establishment, so be it."

Michelman, however, took back her announcement almost as soon as she'd made it. "Despite profound and fundamental differences, I have decided that Pennsylvania will be better served by electing Bob Casey to the U.S. Senate than giving his opponent another term," Michelman wrote in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 12. "I do this knowing that I may forever regret not responding one more time to the clarion call of principle."

This turnaround shouldn't be a surprise to abortion rights activists who are familiar with Michelman's tenure as head of NARAL--and the organization's willingness to ignore the "clarion call of principle." It was Michelman who helped shift the group toward a more apologetic stance on abortion, and endorsing "viable" Democratic candidates over pro-choice ones.

This strategy has moved the pro-choice movement nowhere--except backward. A new kind of organizing for abortion rights is necessary--one that stands up confidently for a woman's right to choose and control her own body.

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