Will Draconian South Dakota Force Women to Visit Religious Pregnancy Centers Before Abortions?

Human Rights

The South Dakota legislature was on the receiving end of a media frenzy this week when Rep. Phil Jensen introduced a bill that would allow a murderer to plead “justifiable homicide” if they killed anyone who threatened the fetus of a pregnant woman, a law many took to be declaring open season on abortion providers in the state.

The proposed law was shelved, but the assault on women's right to an abortion isn't over. Lost in the commotion is a more sinister law that is about to be voted on as well, which will mandate all women who want abortions must first undergo a counseling session with a representative at a crisis pregnancy center and prove that she is not being coerced into her decision.

HB 1217, which was introduced by Rep. Roger Hunt on January 31, seeks to “establish certain legislative findings pertaining to the decision of a pregnant mother considering termination of her relationship with her child by an abortion, to establish certain procedures to better insure that such decisions are voluntary, uncoerced, and informed, and to revise certain causes of action for professional negligence relating to performance of an abortion.”

According to the text of the bill, women who are seeking abortions are not “first meeting and consulting with a physician or establishing a traditional physician-patient relationship.”  The bill then states that because of this, there is no one to screen the pregnant woman to ensure that it is really her idea to abort the fetus, and “Such practices are contrary to the best interests of the pregnant mother and her child and there is a need to protect the pregnant mother's interest in her relationship with her child and her health”.

In search of an answer to a non-existent problem, anti-choice legislators are proposing that before all women undergo an abortion, they need to be evaluated for signs of coercion.  And according to the anti-choice politicians, the best person to make the final decision about the woman’s mental state isn’t a physician, a psychologist, or even a certified counselor.  No, instead she should be evaluated by a paid employee or volunteer at one of the state’s anti-abortion, primarily Christian-based crisis pregnancy centers.

Should HB1217 pass, a woman wanting an abortion must first be screened by a physician before even making an appointment for the procedure.  Following the screening, the physician must schedule the abortion at least 72 hours later, as well as provide the woman with a list of every crisis pregnancy center in the state.  In order to obtain her abortion, the woman must return to the doctor with a signed statement from the center proving she received counseling.

 “[P]rior to the day of any scheduled abortion the pregnant mother must have a consultation at a pregnancy help center at which the pregnancy help center shall inform her about what education, counseling, and other assistance is available to help the pregnant mother keep and care for her child, and have a private interview to discuss her circumstances that may subject her decision to coercion;

 (b) That prior to signing a consent to an abortion, the physician shall first obtain from the pregnant mother, a written statement that she obtained a consultation with a pregnancy help center, which sets forth the name and address of the pregnancy help center, the date and time of the consultation, and the name of the counselor at the pregnancy help center with whom she consulted.”

HB1217 introduces a variety of troubling factors when it comes to a women’s right to reproductive autonomy, not the least of which is the fact that religious-based crisis pregnancy centers would become the gatekeeper to whether or not a woman could actually receive her abortion.

The bill itself instates an even longer waiting period of 72 hours, in comparison to the state’s original 24 hour waiting period.  With the limited amount of providers in the state, and the amount that most women need to travel in order to even obtain an abortion, a 72 hour wait forces women to have to make extensive travel plans, and most likely arrange time off of work and additional child care arrangements in order to meet the requirements.  For many women of whom finances often play a huge factor in their choice in the first place, this will place even more financial burden on them, as well as potentially delay their abortion enough to make the procedure more difficult or expensive.

Then there is the bigger issue, which is that the state is legally mandating that women must undergo religious counseling before obtaining an abortion.

Crisis pregnancy centers, besides often providing erroneous information on birth, birth control and abortion, claim in public that their primary mission is to help women chose life and carry their pregnancies to term rather than turn to abortion.  Although that may be a means for them to interact with women (and men), a large number of centers admit their major focus is to attempt to bring people to Christianity.

Take for example Care Net, a registered CPC in Rapid City, whose mission is “to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ in word and deed. As a result, the hearts of women and men are being changed by Christ's love to desire positive and healthy choices. In addition, those struggling with past abortions are finding God's healing and forgiveness.”   Care Net was formerly known as the “Christian Action Council” and asks all its affiliates to agree to a statement of faith in which they must attest to their Christian beliefs in a resurrected Christ and the infallibility of the Bible as the word of God.

Birthright International, who has multiple crisis pregnancy centers throughout the state, claim to be non-denominational and “non-judgmental,” but became known across the country in 2005 for offer “fetus Christmas tree ornaments” as a fundraiser for the group.

Alpha Center, a CPC in Sioux Falls, says it will not “push” its faith on the women coming in, however “Most people feel there is a spiritual component to life, so we would be amiss if we ignored it.”

New Haven doesn’t even attempt to hide its affiliation, stating “pregnancy counseling” is just one of the many of offerings of this Christian ministry.    And Bella Resources Center spent the recent “Sanctity of Human Life Sunday” fundraising through local church groups.

What’s more, it is clear that the South Dakota legislature knows they are advocating mandatory proselytizing before a woman can undergo an abortion when they wrote the bill.  Only a few days before HB1217 was introduced, the South Dakota senate offered a concurrent resolution honoring pregnancy care centers and their “comprehensive care” for women facing unwanted pregnancies, commending them for their work helping women physically, emotionally and “spiritually.”

WHEREAS, the life-affirming impact of pregnancy care centers on the women, men, children, and communities they serve is considerable and growing; and

WHEREAS, pregnancy care centers serve women in South Dakota and across the United States with integrity and compassion; and

WHEREAS, more than 2,500 pregnancy care centers across the United States provide comprehensive care to women and men facing unplanned pregnancies, including resources to meet their physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs…

The anti-abortion legislators that will be passing this mandatory counseling legislation know full well that the women going to these CPCs will be forced to not only somehow prove they have made the decision to terminate their pregnancies themselves, but defend any attempt to be “ministered” by representatives interested in converting them to the organization’s faith.

Should HB1217 pass, women in South Dakota not only will have to jump through even more hoops and delays to obtain a legal abortion, but will also have to defend their decisions to highly religious anti-choice activists with no medical or counseling backgrounds.  Getting an abortion will become an elaborate game of “Mother May I?” with anti-abortion activists being allowed to write the rules.

“This bill, the first of its kind in the nation, would require women in some of the most difficult circumstances, including victims of rape and incest and mothers facing serious complications, to get permission for a legal medical procedure from an unregulated agency staffed by untrained volunteers,” stated Sarah Stoesz, CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

“It’s outrageous that the state would mandate that a woman must seek permission from a so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which are not legitimate medical facilities, before she could access safe, legal abortion care from her doctor. “

Legislators will be voting on HB 1217 on Tuesday, February 22.  With over 20 co-sponsors, the bill is expected to easily pass. For the women of South Dakota, the harassment and paternalism won't end soon.

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