Abortion Rights Activists Use Petition to Fight S.D. Ban

An abortion-rights group in South Dakota has started a petition drive that, if successful, would stall that state's new abortion ban and give voters a say in the matter. The move could replace talk of a legal challenge of the law. Abortion opponents call it a desperate maneuver to avoid a legal confrontation. South Dakota Public Radio's Johanna Sailor reports.

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South Dakota's new law banning nearly all abortions is due to go into effect July 1. Abortion opponents designed the legislation to be a direct assault on the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973. But some abortion rights advocates wanted to put the question to voters instead of judges. Johanna Sailor, of South Dakota Public Radio, reports.

JOHANNA SAILOR reporting:

The South Dakota abortion ban is similar to the law the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional 33 years ago. Abortion opponents want the South Dakota law to spark a legal fight that would lead the Supreme Court to reverse its decision in Roe v. Wade. But now abortion rights advocates here are trying to avoid the court system altogether. Organizers are trying to gather nearly 17,000 signatures to put the ban question on the November ballot.

South Dakota State University political science professor Bob Burns says the state's constitution allows voters to challenge new laws, and organizers have until June 19 to garner enough signatures.

Professor BOB BURNS (Political Science, South Dakota State University): The process then provides that the legislation will not be enacted until it should be approved by the voters, and then if it is disapproved by the voters, then it will never be enacted.

Ms. SAILOR: Abortion rights supporter Jim Robinson will help circulate those petitions. Robinson says that if voters reject the ban, it will stop a costly legal battle for the state.

Mr. JIM ROBINSON (Abortion Rights Supporter): And we think that by cutting it all dead at the ballot box that there is no legal case once it's overturned, and that also sends a message out very clearly to the extremists in other states that their position is way too far out for the average American, and it's just not going to tolerated.

Ms. SAILOR: The legislation was approved by a majority of South Dakota lawmakers who felt that the ban is not extreme. Leslie Unruh agrees. Her group, Abstinence Clearinghouse, calls the referendum campaign a desperate move to avoid a legal confrontation. But Unruh says she doesn't oppose a petition drive, so long as it's South Dakotans carrying it out.

Ms. LESLIE UNRUH (Founder, Abstinence Clearinghouse): I think the people of South Dakota, before they sign any petitions, they should ask for an ID from the person carrying the petition, and they should have to be a person from South Dakota. I was born and raised here, and I was the one to bring that bill to Representative Hunt. And I think it's outrageous that others are coming into this state and trying to run our state.

Ms. SAILOR: But charges of outside influence are being made on both sides of this hot button issue. Abortion rights supporter Jim Robinson says his group decided to launch the petition drive sooner than expected, precisely because outside groups were getting too closely involved. But political scientist Bob Burns says it's impossible to close down South Dakota's borders and keep interested parties out of the state. He says if the measure makes it on the ballot, both sides will be spending a lot time and money trying to sway South Dakota voters.

Mr. ROBINSON: I'm confident it will become a pretty unpleasant issue campaign before it's all over.

Ms. SAILOR: The possibility remains that the battle over the abortion ban could still play out in court. Planned Parenthood of South Dakota says it will decide in the coming days whether to support the petition drive and its effort to overturn the ban, or to file a lawsuit challenging it in court.

For NPR News, I'm Johanna Sailor in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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