Opponents of S.D. Abortion Ban Petition for Vote

Abortion rights advocates have announced a petition drive in South Dakota calling for a rejection of an abortion law recently signed by the governor. It would be the most restrictive such law in the nation.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, fact-checking the Bush administration's statements on the Iraq war.

BRAND: But first, in South Dakota a direct challenge to a controversial new abortion law. Three weeks ago the governor of South Dakota signed a statewide ban on abortion. Today, abortion rights groups are filing a petition to put the ban to a direct vote in hopes of overturning it. State representative Elaine Roberts spoke after the filing in Sioux Falls.

Representative ELAINE ROBERTS (Democrat, South Dakota): We need to give this opportunity to the people of South Dakota to voice their opinions on this important issue.

BRAND: NPR's Mike Pesca reports on what's shaping up to be an intense battle over this referendum.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Two days ago, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Sarah Stoesz blurted out the number 16,728. Sarah Stoesz is the president of Planned Parenthood for Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and 16,728 is the number of signatures needed to introduce a statewide referendum which would put the abortion ban to the people.

She's certain that abortion rights activists will get the signatures. She's less sure how the vote will go.

Ms. SARAH STOESZ (President and CEO, Planned Parenthood): I don't know. I think it will be a very tough battle, a very difficult summer, and I don't think there's a guarantee of success.

PESCA: Stoesz calculates that even if her side loses, it wins, because a fight in South Dakota will rally pro-choice groups nationally, and as a practical matter, the law will almost certainly go to the courts, which initially will have to see it as a violation of the Roe vs. Wade. That means the state's one clinic, which Planned Parenthood operates, will not close.

Like anyone who's ever championed a referendum, Stoesz frames the upcoming vote as a chance for the people to be heard.

Ms. STOESZ: It's a healthy process to allow ordinary citizens to get engaged and to talk about this issue, rather than allowing the American Life League and so on to dictate to the politicians of South Dakota what should occur.

Mr. DAVID B. WRIGHT (Director, American Life League): Bring it on. If they want to do the referendum vote, we're ready to go to bat.

PESCA: David B. Wright is the director of the American Life League, and anti-abortion group based out of Washington. He was in South Dakota's State House on Tuesday for the last day of the session to, in his words, thank the legislators who passed the ban. B. Wright disagrees with the notion that the abortion rights activists are in a win/win situation.

Mr. B. WRIGHT: I probably would not go the referendum route because they have a lot to lose. There is a very strong indication the people of South Dakota could very easily say, we support this ban, and that would make their fight an awful lot tougher. Yes, they might still get the court victory, but it would be a real black eye from a PR standpoint for the abortion industry, and specifically for Planned Parenthood.

PESCA: Planned Parenthood and the American Life League both see themselves as the little guy and their opponents as well-funded, outside interests. South Dakotans will be hearing those charges over the next eight months, funded by millions of dollars, which will buy some of the least expensive television time in America. B. Wright's ready.

Mr. B. WRIGHT: Yes, there will television and print advertising. Yes, there will be PR campaigns, but really, it's going to ultimately be South Dakotans talking to other South Dakotans.

PESCA: The South Dakotan perhaps more readily identified with abortion ban is Representative Roger Hunt, who sponsored the bill in the House. If a referendum does pass and the ban is defeated by popular vote, it will be logical to point to an aspect of the bill that Hunt pushed for, not offering an exception for rape of incest. But Hunt says the media has got that all wrong, that there is an exception which allows for emergency contraception.

Representative ROGER HUNT (Republican, South Dakota): If a woman is raped and she reports it to law enforcement, obviously somebody in law enforcement's going to tell her, all right, fine, if you're concerned about a pregnancy, there's a contraceptive. A doctor can prescribe it. There's no violation of this statute whatsoever under those circumstances.

PESCA: Dale Hargens is a Democrat in the legislature who describes himself as pro-life, but after his amendments to include a rape and incest exception went down in a vote, he voted against the overall bill. He doesn't buy Roger Hunt's argument that the exception is actually in there.

Mr. DALE HARGENS (Democrat, South Dakota Legislature): Well, there's a very small rape and incest provision. It's simply the morning after drug. For him to maintain that that's a rape and incest, is addressed by that, is a very, very big stretch, close to being a lie.

PESCA: A poll, which was commissioned by and abortions rights group, but conducted by professional pollsters, shows that 62 percent of South Dakotans thought the abortion law, as written, is too extreme. That poll is disputed by anti-abortion groups, which point to piles of widely accepted polling that show that in general the people of South Dakota are against abortion.

After the state's governor, Mike Rounds, signed the bill, a poll conducted by the independent Survey USA, showed his popularity ratings drop by 14 percentage points. Abortion foes say that might have been his toughest week as governor, and he still has a 58 percent approval rating. He'll be an asset in the upcoming fight.

South Dakotans have many months of ads, arguments, surveys and soundbites to look forward to. Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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