South Dakota's Abortion Ban, Part 1

The state of South Dakota has passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country. Mike Pesca reports on how South Dakotan lawmakers are dealing with the national attention this decision has brought them.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. The center of the abortion debate in this country is now in South Dakota. Three weeks ago, the state passed the most restrictive abortion ban anywhere in the country. It makes surgical abortion illegal, except to save the life of the mother.

BRAND: The ban is a challenge to Rowe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that defined the right to abortion. NPR's Mike Pesca reports that some people in South Dakota are uneasy with the attention the new law has brought.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Under God, the people rule. The motto of South Dakota is a contemplation of church and state. The sentiment is echoed each night in the skyline of Sioux Falls, the state's largest city with the state's largest structure, which rises to the height of 11 stories. But the most interesting buildings are the old courthouse, with its illuminated clock tower that keeps time for the downtown area, and a half-mile away, St. Joseph's Cathedral, where white stone walls catch the floodlights that keep it glowing all night.

The rule of law and the rule of man in close proximity. Just like everywhere in America. Yet, what's going on in South Dakota is unique. The state has about 770,000 people, a population so small, it wouldn't rank in the top ten counties in California. But among them, there are thousands of opinions on abortion. Some people are thrilled by the new law. Some think it's too soon. Some think it's outright terrible. Some just ask, what has South Dakota gotten itself into?

This is a place not entirely comfortable with national scrutiny, but the voices across the state are already clamoring. Here in Sioux Falls, there is Lisa, a 30-year-old employee of the Planned Parenthood Clinic. If the ban becomes law, it's people like the 21-year-old Lisa who will be most affected.

LISA (Employee, Planned Parenthood Clinic): Nine years, I had a small son that was two, and an unplanned pregnancy. And I wasn't ready for another child.

PESCA: Almost 400 miles to the west, through the Badlands and into the Black Hills, there is Lila Payne(ph), visiting Mt. Rushmore from her home a few miles away in Rapid City.

Ms. LILA PAYNE (Resident, Rapid City, South Dakota): I would say that it's the right of the state to do what they want to do.

PESCA: In the capital of Pierre--that's how they pronounce it, not like the Frenchman's name Pierre, but rhyming with here--Representative Dale Hargens recounts his vote on the abortion ban.

State Representative DALE HARGENS (Democrat, South Dakota): I am pro-life, but I do believe you have to have exception for rape and incest or the health of the mother, and they wouldn't accept my amendment, so I then voted no on the bill.

PESCA: Hargens is a Democrat, but on the abortion vote, party lines don't mean as much in South Dakota as the do nationally. For instance, in the 35 member Senate, of the 12 votes against the ban, eight were Republican. One of them was Republican Senator Clarence Kooistra. One of the reasons he voted no was he thinks the ban will cost too much to defend in court.

State Senator CLARENCE KOOISTRA (Republican, South Dakota): This measure that we passed is way too radical for South Dakota. I think when they went with this, that they didn't think that they would get all the media, and thinking well, why would South Dakota take that action? You know, they want to be somewhat heroes if it ever goes before the Supreme Court, to say little South Dakota, you know, got this all started. But to spend several millions of dollars, which is a little conservative state like South Dakota, we don't have that kind of money.

PESCA: Kooistra's point about South Dakota's proud frugality was made as much by his surrounding's as his words. He was speaking from his desk on the floor of the Senate. Like all Senators not in the leadership, he does not have an office, a staff, or a per diem allotment that allows him to stay in a hotel nicer than the Days Inn.

In South Dakota, senators make $6,000 a year, and many, Kooistra among them, claim not to own a suit. Like the other lawmakers, the former high school government teacher is feeling pressure over the ban. He expects, just like last year, to be challenged for his Senate seat, largely because of his vote on this one issue. His Republican Colleague, Brock Greenfield, is feeling another sort of tension, stemming from some uncertainty within the pro-life movement that the ban pushed too hard.

As the state's director of the Right to Life Committee, Greenfield is as committed an abortion opponent as can be, but he's also emblematic of the state's practicality. He did not vote for a similar bill that was introduced in past sessions.

State Senator BROCK GREENFIELD (Republican, South Dakota): I support the issue of banning abortions all the way. Two years ago, I did not support challenging in the judicial system, you know, trying to come up before the Supreme Court, because I just didn't feel that at that time we had the votes.

PESCA: The 30-year-old senator, who stands at least 6'3” tall and weighs close to 300 pounds, says he got elected because most of the people in his district know his family from their convenience store, and remember him because he pumped their gas. He's a substitute teacher and coach during year, and he seems genuinely hurt to be on the receiving end of vitriolic e-mail from around the country.

Greenfield also hears from fellow abortion foes. Some say go for it. Some say too soon. But he says he hasn't heard much from National Right to Life.

State Senator GREENFIELD: I've not been in contact with them to a large extent. In fact, only but a few times on a few occasions. They didn't weigh in and tell us to oppose it or, you know, anything like that. We did this here in South Dakota, but if their experts, you know, would think there's reason to hesitate or whatnot, I don't think it's up to me to question them on that.

PESCA: The primary driver of bill is Representative Roger Hunt. Hunt used to be Speaker of the House, then took two years off because of term limits and is now bringing his expertise into a fight that he welcomes. Though only four pages long, the bill has a lengthy preamble that references is a task force, and the State Constitution's right to life. Hunt says that the bill is intended to be both a law and a kind of legal argument.

State Representative ROGER HUNT (Republican, South Dakota): This particular piece of legislation has been drafted very carefully to provide a couple of major issues and arguments to be presented to the United States Supreme Court.

PESCA: Hunt can speak for hours on the bill's merit. Sometimes, it seems that he will, even if prompted by only a single question. He's one of the few lawyers in the House, and knows enough to fill the gaps in his expertise with some of America's top pro-life legal minds. Less violable is the bill's sponsor in the Senate, Democrat Julie Bartling. She won't even do any more interviews. Other senators say she's been taking a lot of heat since the bill passed. Democratic Senator Frank Kloucek, who voted for the ban, says that's the price you pay, even if you're only being paid $6,000 a year.

State Senator FRANK KLOUCEK (Democrat, South Dakota): There's been pressure, tremendous pressure, on both sides. This bill has been here three years in a row now. It's a model legislation that they're looking at putting in other states in the nation as well.

PESCA: Before other states can copy South Dakota--a notion Hunt says is new to him--South Dakota must first get the law on the books. It won't be easy. The ban is likely to face a popular vote in a statewide referendum this November. And even though most citizens here are against abortion, the bill doesn't have a clear exception for rape and incest, which most voters want.

Even if the bill passes a referendum, the circuit courts may simply block it, and the Supreme Court could refuse to hear the appeal. Or, South Dakota may make history, which will be felt nowhere more than here.

ANDREA: Women are educated enough to know about when they come to an abortion clinic, that that's what they're coming here for.

PESCA: That's Andrea, no last names, because the manager of the only abortion clinic in the state has security worries. As you hear this, there are maybe half a dozen women in that clinic's waiting room. They're waiting, among the brochures with soft-colored palettes, for contraception, or advice, or, if this is the right day of the week, for an abortion. Metaphorically, this entire state is now a waiting room. There are few ideas waiting for an answer from the state, the courts, and the people of South Dakota. It depends on where you sit, but there are women's interests, pro-life interests, the much de-rioted outside interests, the mixed bag that is media interest, and the sincere interest of any American, who's waiting to see what direction our country will be taking soon.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

BRAND: And tomorrow, Mike goes to the epicenter of South Dakota's abortion battle, the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Sioux Falls, where he asked a clinic manager about the counseling that the women receive.

Unidentified Man (Manager, Planned Parenthood Clinic): And that's done with everyone, everyone who comes here for an abortion hears the word adoption, at least, or it gets the question asked to them, have you thought about adoption?

Unidentified Woman (Worker, Planned Parenthood Clinic): The question comes, have you thought about all your options? I can't say that every person that does the education talks specifically about adoption.

Unidentified Man: When you do it, do you?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

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