STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Lawmakers in South Dakota are poised to give final approval to the most sweeping ban on abortion in nearly two decades.
As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, this legislation is intended to reach much further than the borders of just one state.
JULIE ROVNER reporting:
After 21 years of cajoling South Dakota State legislators, Leslee Unruh has victory in her sights.
Ms. LESLEE UNRUH (Pro Life Advocate): Momentum is everything and I think that we have momentum.
ROVNER: Unruh heads the Alpha Center and Abstinence Clearinghouse, which counsels women with unintended pregnancies on abortion alternatives. She says she didn't have much luck when she first started lobbying the legislature to restrict abortion.
Ms. UNRUH: There was a time where it was tough to even get parental consent.
ROVNER: But today the South Dakota House is expected to give final approval to a measure that would ban all abortions in the state, except those needed to save the life of the pregnant woman. The State Senate, which approved the bill Wednesday, rejected amendments to allow abortions in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the pregnant woman's health.
Unruh says she's confident that Republican Governor Michael Rounds will sign the measure, and she makes it clear that she hopes the law will have a broader impact.
Ms. UNRUH: We've been very successful to chip away at the laws of Roe v. Wade in South Dakota, and we think the rest of the country should really be following us and following the heartland, and this is definitely a plan to go after Roe v. Wade.
ROVNER: That would be the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Eve Gartner, senior staff attorney for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says the only way the South Dakota law could take effect is if the Supreme Court were to throw out Roe.
Ms. EVE GARTNER (Planned Parenthood Federation of America): This law is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, and if this law is upheld, it would mean that abortions could be banned anywhere in this country.
ROVNER: This isn't the first time a state has tried to outlaw abortion since Roe was decided. Utah, Louisiana and the territory of Guam all passed measures in the late 1980s that were subsequently blocked. That flurry of state laws came after the Supreme Court signaled that it might be willing to accept more restrictions on abortion.
Gartner says the timing of the South Dakota measure is no coincidence either. It's coming just as two potentially anti-abortion justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, have joined the Court.
Ms. GARTNER: Clearly people that want to make abortion completely unavailable in this country have timed this so that a newly constituted Supreme Court can overturn Roe v. Wade. That's what they're hoping for here.
ROVNER: But there's a risk to that strategy, one that's divided abortion opponents. The question has been whether to pursue incremental changes, including the so-called partial birth abortion ban the Supreme Court just this week agreed to hear, and hope to chip away at the right to abortion, or to go for the big change.
Political scientist John Green of the University of Akron says that by making the big move, anti-abortion forces could very well face a set-back even with the newly configured Court.
Professor JOHN GREEN (Political Science, University of Akron): Based on the records of Judge Robert and Justice Alito, it looks very unlikely that they would institute sweeping changes in abortion law or in fact in any other area, because these strict constructions, very careful judges that believe in incremental change, whatever their personal philosophy might be.
ROVNER: Green says there's another aspect of the South Dakota law that makes it potentially significant. It defined human life as beginning at the fertilization of egg and sperm.
Professor GREEN: Most of the debate so far has been about what is legal, whereas most of the debate has not been about defining when life begins or what life exactly is. And that could have broader ramifications in other areas of the law as well.
ROVNER: Areas such as assisted suicide, the use of embryonic stem cells, or even other areas of medical research. And Green says there's one more risk for abortion opponents in trying to ban the procedure outright. Every time the core right to abortion appears to be in jeopardy, public opinion has tended to swing the other way towards abortion rights.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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