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South Dakota anti-abortion law breaks new ground

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signs a law that requires a woman seeking an abortion to wait three days and to visit an anti-abortion counseling center. Critics say it is unconstitutional, proponens say it is common sense.

By Staff writer / March 22, 2011



South Dakota today became the first state in the country to require women seeking an abortion to visit anti-abortion counseling centers.

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Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) signed legislation that is precedent-setting in several ways. It also mandates a 72-hour waiting period – the longest in the country – and requires two visits to a physician and a screening for risk factors, in addition to the visit to a pregnancy crisis center.

“I think everyone agrees with the goal of reducing abortion by encouraging consideration of other alternatives,” Governor Daugaard said in a written statement. “I hope that women who are considering an abortion will use this three-day period to make good choices.”

Planned Parenthood announced before the bill was signed that it would file a lawsuit.

“The 72-hour waiting period coupled with having to go to a crisis pregnancy center whose very mission is to dissuade women from going through with an abortion has grave constitutional concerns for us,” says Kathi Di Nicola, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota.

The measure is among the most restrictive abortion-related bills to come before today's state legislatures. While state-level curbs on abortions have been growing steadily since 1995, the more-Republican makeup of many legislatures voted into office in November has increased the likelihood that many such measures will become law, says Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“The barbarians have always been at the gates,” she says, “but now the gates are open.” She’s also disturbed at the nature of some of the legislation. One proposal in Arizona, for instance, would prohibit any company that purchased health insurance that included abortion coverage from doing business with the state.

“We think this is among the most dangerous times for the right to choose since Roe v. Wade,” Ms. Crane says.

Abortion opponents, meanwhile, say restrictions like the one South Dakota just enacted are simply common sense.

“This bill would ensure that the woman would be able to have access to both sides of the story, and will have access to some personal support as opposed to somebody just pressuring her to get an abortion,” says Roger Hunt, a South Dakota lawmaker and the bill’s main sponsor. “It seems to me that spending a little time talking to somebody and waiting 72 hours is nothing unreasonable.”

He takes issue with critics' claims that the crisis center requirement would force women to see untrained counselors who are pushing an agenda.

“If you want to talk about a loaded place, go to Planned Parenthood,” he says.

Those who opposed the new law, however, say the crisis center requirement in particular is worrisome because the staff at such centers often give inaccurate information. They also note that the law contains certain language – including a requirement that doctors screen women for unspecified mental or physical risk factors before providing an abortion – similar to a Nebraska law that was recently struck down by the courts.

In fact, some Republican lawmakers had urged Daugaard to veto the bill simply on the grounds that defending is likely to be costly, at a time of strained resources. Daugaard has said he was weighing those costs as he decided whether to sign the bill.

Representative Hunt, for his part, says almost all the costs of defending past abortion-related bills in court (one of which is still in litigation) have been paid by private individuals, and he expects that to happen again this time.

This is not the first time abortion has been a flash point for the state. With only one abortion clinic and numerous restrictions, it’s one of the most difficult states in the country for a woman to obtain an abortion. In 2006 and again in 2008, South Dakota made news with far-reaching voter referendums that would have outlawed abortions. Despite being a very conservative, largely anti-abortion state, voters rejected the ballot initiatives by at least a 10-point margin in both cases.

“People are tired of this issue coming up again and again and again, because they believe the people of South Dakota have spoken soundly,” says Jan Nicolay, cochair of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, which opposed the bill.

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