March 18, 2005
South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds signed a series of anti-abortion bills into law. The legislation further restricts what are already considered the toughest laws in the nation. The new changes don't go into effect until July. Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and the Dakotas will decide by the end of April if they'll challenge the laws in court.
Sioux Falls, S.D. — The new South Dakota abortion laws caught many off guard. Last year, lawmakers tried to ban all abortion and criminalize doctors who perform it. Each year about 800 abortion are performed in the state. Similar legislation died in committee this year. But four other bills were approved and signed into law with little attention.
One of the four new laws makes specific requirements of doctors. They must inform pregnant women, in writing and in person, that an abortion ends the lives of humans and terminates the constitutional relationship women have with their fetuses. That must happen two hours before an abortion is performed.
Rep. Roger Hunt, R-Brandon, is the bill's sponsor. At a legislative hearing he testified it's no different than a mother signing away her parental rights when she gives up a baby for adoption.
"If you're going to go through that type of information process relative to a mere custody of the child then, certainly we should accept the fact that in the interest of the mother's relationship with that child and under South Dakota law, then it's only appropriate that an informed consent include that material as well," said Hunt.
Many states already have what's called a Women's Right to Know law. The measure has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and requires that doctors give patients specific medical information before an abortion.
The new law in South Dakota will add to that. Doctors will now have to tell women they could die and that abortions can lead to depression and suicide.
Kate Looby, director of the South Dakota Planned Parenthood office, says the legislature is forcing doctors to communicate an ideology not a set of facts. South Dakota's current informed consent law is constitutional. Looby says the new law crossed that line and that the real issue is not what a woman should be told before an abortion but rather how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.
"When you start talking about really solving the problems of reducing unplanned pregnancies, everyone runs from that because it's so much more difficult than just reducing abortion access because that seems to be the quick easy fix but it doesn't solve the problem," Looby said.
So why is such landmark legislation such a surprise? To be honest, it's about geography. South Dakota is one of the nation's least populated states. And the capitol, Pierre, is hours away from the state's most populated city. People don't keep track of the legislature and public hearings are often unattended.
Joel Johnson, government studies professor at Augustana College, says that geography makes it impossible to include the public in debates about important issues. That means it's important who gets elected to the legislature.
"Because you won't necessarily be able to keep as close tabs on them as you might in a more populated state, where you're not as far away from the state capitol," said Johnson. "Reporting might be more direct and more frequent of what's going on there."
In the last four years South Dakotans have had two high profile races for the U.S. Senate. There was little attention paid to legislative races.
Gov. Mike Rounds would not comment for this story. Other legislation he signed would automatically ban most abortions in South Dakota if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Another bill tightens the parental notification law. And a fourth new law establishes a task force to study the history of abortion to see if other laws need changing next session.