Friday, April 25, 2008

The abortion battle is back in South Dakota

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The abortion battle is back in South Dakota.

Secretary of State Chris Nelson cleared the way this morning for a voter initiative that would enact one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country to be included on the state's Nov. 4 ballot.

His office has not finished counting the signatures submitted by VoteYesForLife.com, a group opposed to abortions, but Nelson said "they have enough a sufficient number of signatures that it will be on the ballot in November as Measure 11."

Reprising the emotionally charged 2006 election, activists on both sides of the abortion issue are rolling up their sleeves for an intense campaign.

And once again, the fight likely will attract money and activists from around the country.

The regional Planned Parenthood chapter headquartered in Minnesota played a large role in the 2006 election in which voters rescinded a state law that virtually prohibited abortion. The campaign cost a total of nearly $4 million and included activities even South Dakota abortion opponents considered over the top, such as activists from outside the state painting trucks with pictures of dead fetuses.

Polls before the 2006 vote indicated that South Dakota residents were troubled because the law didn't allow for exceptions in cases of rape or incest or to preserve the health of the woman.

So this time, abortion opponents are proposing language that allows for those exceptions, provided certain conditions are met.

"Right now I guess it would be approved at the ballot box,'' said Bob Burns, political science professor at South Dakota State University. Moderate anti-abortion voters likely will be swayed by the changes, he said.

But even if voters approve the law that challenges Roe v. Wade, it likely will be tied up in the courts, Burns said.

"The pro-lifers may feel that if you win a popular vote, that it's a victory even if you lose in the courts,'' he said.

Abortion-rights activists say they weren't surprised by the new initiative. "When [abortion opponents] didn't get a similar bill through the Legislature last year, they made it clear they would take it to the people,'' said Jan Nicolay, co-chair of Campaign for Healthy Families, which will oppose the proposed restrictions.

But she and other abortion rights activists say enough is enough.

"It's very disrespectful to the people of South Dakota to put them through this again,'' said Sarah Stoesz, president and chief executive officer for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. "It was a very emotional experience for a lot of people. ... There were people who came from all over the country, driving big semi-trucks with huge pictures of aborted fetuses and airplanes flying, trailing pictures.

"People couldn't escape being involved in this debate. People took this very seriously. People debated in their families. They debated it at church at work. You couldn't go to a soccer game and it didn't come up."

Some people resent having to go through this again; others are just tired of it, she said.

Not the abortion opponents, said Leslee Unruh, executive director of VoteYesForLife.com. "They're excited about going to the polls. They know it's important.''

Some abortion opponents are bristling about the exceptions that were added to the proposal, Unruh said. They may not help finance the campaign this time, but they still may vote for the new law, she said.

The biggest problem for her camp, however, will be keeping outside elements from entering the fray again.

"I totally disagree with showing pictures of dead babies and people coming in from out of state. It's not their state. It's not their party. They should stay away,'' Unruh said. "That's what makes people in South Dakota uncomfortable."

For her part, Unruh said she's ready to run a more efficient and aggressive campaign. "This is a tough subject,'' she said. "And we're going to be tough.''

On the other side, initiative opponents say this year's battle will be less clear-cut because of the changes in the language that allow some exceptions for abortions under certain conditions. "There are exceptions for rape and incest, but you have to read the fine print,'' said Nicolay.

For example, a woman would have to report incest or a rape to law enforcement authorities before an abortion could be performed. A doctor who performed an abortion also would have to take tissue from the fetus and a sample from the woman for a DNA analysis.

"Why do they have to put the victims through all this? It's re-victimizing them,'' Nicolay said. The law also wouldn't allow exceptions for fetal anomalies or the mother's mental health, she said.

And meeting the health exception could be difficult. "People have to read the details,'' she said.

Abortion rights advocates also are concerned that the initiative will open the door to a more restrictive laws.

"They'll can come back to the Legislature in '09 and take all the exceptions out,'' Nicolay said. "And it will become an outright ban.'' StarTribune

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