South Dakota's Anti-Choice Charge

When it comes to denying women access to abortions, it's hard to beat South Dakota.

  • Like several other states, South Dakota has a mandatory delay law, requiring a woman to wait 24 hours before she can get an abortion.

  • In March, South Dakota enacted restrictions that force doctors to read to women seeking abortions state-scripted information that is medically inaccurate and infused with ideology. The law also requires women to sign the scripts to certify that they understand them. Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota (PPMNS) is currently challenging the law in court.

  • The law in South Dakota also requires minors to notify a parent before getting an abortion.

  • Earlier this year, the state passed a "trigger bill," that will immediately ban all abortions, except to save the life of the woman, if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned.

On top of all these restrictions, there is also the fact that the PPMNS Sioux Falls health center is the only generally available abortion provider in the entire state of South Dakota.

The South Dakota Task Force

On Friday, December 9, the 17-member South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion held its final meeting and made recommendations that encourage the state to restrict abortion further. Advocating for a total ban, but recognizing that it cannot yet be implemented, the task force offered 14 legislative proposals that it would like to see the state pass, including

  • an amendment to the state constitution that gives the "unborn child, from the moment of conception," the same protections "a child receives after birth"

  • a requirement that a pregnant woman receives counseling at a "pregnancy care center that does not perform abortions" before she is allowed to make an appointment at an abortion clinic

  • a requirement that a pregnant woman be shown a "quality ultrasound image of her unborn child" before an abortion is performed

A majority of the task force members -- appointed by South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, the Speaker of the South Dakota House, and the South Dakota Senate President Pro Tempore -- were staunchly anti-choice. "My perception is that no one was appointed without the person appointing them knowing [what] their position [on abortion] was," says Maria Bell, MD, a member of the pro-choice minority in the task force who served as vice-chair.

Kate Looby, South Dakota state director of PPMNS, who also served on the task force, says that there were approximately 10 members who were anti-choice, six who were pro-choice, and the chair of the task force, who was considered "moderate," but voted mostly with the pro-choice side. According to Looby, two of the pro-choice members never showed up to any meetings. She knows that at least one felt serving on the task force was a waste of time.

Exercise in Futility

The final meeting was supposed to be a time for members to decide what to put in the report and what recommendations to make. But at the start of the meeting, members were asked to approve a report that had already been written.

The report states, "... there are new facts and appreciations of those facts, as discussed in this Report, that disprove many factual assumptions made by the [Supreme] Court in Roe v. Wade, requiring that the Supreme Court reconsider its Roe decision."

But according to Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of PPMNS, facts were the one thing this task force was not eager to embrace. Says Stoesz, "In a shameful disregard of irrefutable medical and scientific data, many task force members ignored any fact that contradicted their own personal beliefs, and refused to allow any data that they disapproved of to be included in a final report to the legislature."

Echoing Stoesz's concerns, Looby recalls the efforts of Bell to include medical information in the report proving that there is no connection between breast cancer and abortion. The motion was voted down. Instead, the report states, "The question concerning whether abortion causes an increased risk for breast cancer cannot be answered by this Task Force based on the record. However, the subject is of vital importance, and the reasons to suspect such a connection sufficiently sound, that we conclude that further study of this topic is justified and needed."

The anti-choice majority on the task force used this tactic over and over, says Looby, conveniently omitting scientific information from the report that would not support their conclusions.

As Bell points out, the task force also failed to consider how policies that promote responsibility, like comprehensive sex education and expanded access to birth control, could prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions much more effectively than any restrictions. "They weren't willing to do anything to reduce the need for abortion by preventing unplanned pregnancies," she says.

By the end of the day, the pro-choice delegation had walked out of the proceedings as a form of protest. "We had no choice but to remove ourselves from the process," says Bell. "This group didn't represent the people of South Dakota, and the people of this state would be appalled if they knew what was going on."

After the pro-choice members left, the task force voted nine to one in favor of the report. The one dissenting vote came from the chair of the committee.

South Dakota's Future

"There are people in the legislature who would have a dream that South Dakota brings the ultimate case that overturns Roe v. Wade," says Bell. In fact, earlier this year, Governor Rounds said that he wanted to see the decision overturned and expressed eagerness to get legislation in place that could successfully challenge it.

Says Stoesz, "South Dakota is a proving ground for extreme anti-scientific strategies for limiting access to reproductive health care."

The strategy, says Bell, is to make getting an abortion so onerous that women will just not be able to get one. "That's what is going to happen in South Dakota as with many other conservative states," she says, which is why she believes more people need to get educated and involved.

Bell was disappointed with the two pro-choice members of the task force who did not attend the meetings, as well as with some of her pro-choice colleagues who chose not to get involved, though she admits having to consider seriously the possible implications to her family's safety and financial stability before agreeing to serve on the task force.

Ultimately, Bell had no regrets. "I'm excited about getting more involved in public policy," she says, energized by her experience on the task force. "I'm aghast about what comes out of their [anti-choice task force members'] mouths. It's frightening -- [these] people making policies for our state."

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