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Abortion Ban Foes Petition for a Choice

Even some conservative South Dakotans sign a bid to hold a vote on the law, which was meant to spark a Supreme Court test of Roe vs. Wade.

April 09, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

STURGIS, S.D. — Volunteers pushing to overturn the nation's most far-reaching abortion ban are surprised and delighted by the response as they circulate petitions to put the law up for a public vote.

Even in the most conservative corners of this conservative state, both Republicans and Democrats -- including a few who say they oppose abortion -- are eagerly signing the petition. In two weeks, volunteers have collected a third of the signatures they need to get a November referendum on the ban.

Some voters dismiss the abortion-rights activists as out of touch with South Dakotan values. "People here have a sense of morals and ethics," said Darcy Patterson, 40. "I don't want to change the law."

But others say their legislators went too far when they voted last month to prohibit all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, unless the mother's life is at stake.

Spotting three teenagers with clipboards as he walked up to the Sturgis post office, Jack Hoel, 74, broke into a grin.

"I can't wait to sign," he said. "I was going to go out looking for this petition."

Hoel is a staunch Republican in a county that twice backed President Bush with nearly 75% of the vote. "You have to be, in South Dakota, or you get extradited," he joked.

But Hoel disliked the thought of politicians interfering in a family's most intimate decisions. "It's too personal to be legislated," he said.

The law asserting that embryos have an "unalienable right to life" from the moment of conception is set to take effect July 1. Women will not face charges for ending pregnancies, but doctors who help them could get up to five years in prison. Even if they believe an abortion is necessary to preserve a woman's life, physicians must do all they can to save the fetus.

The abortion ban passed overwhelmingly: 23-12 in the Senate and 50-18 in the House.

Supporters expected the measure to draw an immediate court challenge from Planned Parenthood, which operates the only clinic providing abortions in South Dakota. Abortion opponents wanted a legal fight that could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

But abortion-rights forces chose not to sue. Instead, they're appealing directly to voters.

On college campuses, in tiny farm towns, in tanning salons, on golf courses and in city parks, more than 400 volunteers are circulating petitions. They are organized by the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, which in turn is funded by major abortion-rights supporters such as Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I greatly appreciate your doing this," Priscilla Massey-Swan, 46, told the three high school seniors who had skipped calculus to gather signatures.

The teenagers, who live in Rapid City, had worried their low-cut jeans, chunky necklaces and silver toe rings looked "too hippie" to earn them respect in this Black Hills town of 6,400, most famous for its annual motorcycle rally. "We should have brought Wranglers," said Morandi Hurst, 17.

But as they filled up their petitions, their mood lifted, and they made plans to canvass even smaller towns. "I have renewed faith in the people of South Dakota," said Serri Graslie, 18. "This is turning out much better than I thought."

Even opponents expect the campaign to easily collect the 17,000 valid signatures needed to put the referendum on the ballot. That would put the abortion law into legal limbo, on hold until the November election. If voters reject the law, it will be stricken from the books. If they uphold it, abortion-rights activists can still sue to block its enforcement.

A statewide poll commissioned by abortion-rights activists last month found that 57% of voters want to overturn the ban. But Rep. Thomas Brunner, a Republican who represents the region around Sturgis, said he believed that number was wrong.

"Pretty much overwhelmingly, the representatives and senators are speaking for the people they represent," Brunner said. "Most people don't see it as a real upsetting issue."

Rep. Roger Hunt, the law's chief sponsor, said a number of constituents had expressed concern about rape and incest victims. He reminds them that the ban does not prohibit such women from seeking a prescription for emergency contraceptive. The "morning-after pill" is generally effective if taken within 72 hours of intercourse.

Hunt, a Republican, predicted a resounding victory in November: "I certainly look forward to showing the nation this is a pro-life state."

A half-hour's drive south of Sturgis, in downtown Rapid City, Lisa Tuttle, a 38-year-old mother of six, wrestled with the label "pro-life."

"I don't believe in killing a child. I think that's horrible," Tuttle said. "But in a bad situation, like rape or incest, women should have a choice."

She hesitated but signed the petition.

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