Saturday, March 25, 2006

Battle to overturn S. Dakota abortion ban begins

Battle to overturn S. Dakota abortion ban begins

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota (Reuters)- Abortion-rights supporters launched a referendum drive on Friday to overturn a South Dakota abortion ban designed to challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing the practice nationwide.

A new coalition, South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, said it would try to collect thousands of signatures aimed at giving state voters a chance decide in November on what it called "the nation's most extreme abortion law."

"This law clearly endangers the health of women in South Dakota and violates the right of women and families to make private, personal health-care decisions," the group said.

With at least nine other states also considering strict abortion limits, the issue is expected to gain renewed national visibility in the November midterm elections, when Democrats are seeking to recapture both houses of Congress from Republicans.

The issue could energize both parties, analysts said.

"It is about South Dakota, but it ultimately is a national issue," said Ted G. Jelen, a DePaul University professor of political scientist. "This is the type of thing that... might pry open some checkbooks."

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, signed the law March 6. The measure bans nearly all abortions, even when pregnancies result from incest or rape, and says that if a woman's life is in jeopardy, doctors must try to save the life of the fetus as well as the woman. Doctors who perform an abortion could receive a $5,000 fine and five years in prison.

The ban's supporters have said they hoped for a court challenge that would allow a more-conservative U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's right to an abortion.

But a successful petition drive could delay any lawsuit against the ban by several months, and if voters reject the law in November, the courts would not be involved. A recent poll showed South Dakota voters were split, with 45 percent supporting the ban and the same share opposing it.


The coalition announced the referendum drive before about 45 supporters in a Sioux Falls library as a small group of abortion opponents protested outside.

"This legislation is extreme and does not reflect the values of South Dakotans who want families to be able to make personal decisions about health care without government interference," campaign spokeswoman Jan Nicolay said in a statement.

The petitioners need more than 16,700 signatures by June 19 to block the law from taking effect on July 1. The law would not be enacted if voters reject it on November 7.

The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families lists 15 co-chairs in a group that includes Republican and Democratic state legislators, medical professionals, a Methodist minister and a representative from the state's Sioux Tribe.

Campaign leaders cited a flood of calls and mail from people wanting the law overturned. They said a referendum campaign would cost millions of dollars but put the issue where it belongs - in the voters' hands.

Judie Brown, president of anti-abortion American Life League, predicted a referendum would uphold the ban. "The people of South Dakota want to end all medical and surgical abortion," Brown said.

Democrats may benefit most from a higher-profile abortion debate, with the majority of Americans favoring some form of abortion rights, Jelen said.

A FOX News poll issued earlier this month found 59 percent of Americans said they would oppose a law in their state like the new South Dakota legislation.

(additional reporting by Mike Conlon)