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Jewett: South Dakota reproductive justice

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Recently, volunteers from the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families announced they had collected more than 38,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the extreme abortion ban signed by Gov. Mike Rounds on March 21. The fact that almost 5 percent of the state’s population signed the petition strongly suggests that South Dakotans believe in compassion, mercy and the rights of women, families and communities to make decisions for themselves. Many of those who signed the petition no doubt did so in reaction to an abortion ban that does not even make an exception for women who are victims of rape or incest.

Many people already know that rape and incest are not the primary reason why most women have abortions. Nevertheless, people are deeply offended because the ban sends the message that the state does not take seriously the pervasive violence in women’s lives. The state has, in effect, said that rather than working to understand and end that violence, the state will make it worse for those women who happen to get pregnant as a result of it. The ban, then, isn’t just about abortion; it is about a state that makes violence against women a sideshow to the abortion controversy.

Proponents of South Dakota’s abortion ban, including Rep. Roger Hunt, R-S.D., have tried to hide the extraordinary cruelty of the ban by saying that women need not worry because they can still have access to emergency contraception. (Emergency contraception, taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex or birth control failure, significantly reduces the likelihood a woman will get pregnant.)

First, this answer shows again a complete disregard for the lives, health and safety of women who have been subjected to the violence of rape. By definition, victims of such events have experienced trauma and are very likely, in our culture, to feel embarrassment, shame and fear. As a result, some will not seek help right away. Suggesting that the state of South Dakota cares about these women – but only if they can manage to seek help within the first 72 hours – reveals a disregard for women’s lives and health that many South Dakotans just don’t think is right or fair.

Second, and even more telling, is the fact that South Dakota has done virtually everything it can to limit women’s access to emergency contraception. South Dakota’s Legislature was one of the first in the country, in 1998, to enact a law permitting pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives. According to state law, if a woman is trying to fill a prescription for emergency contraception, she may be turned down by her pharmacist.

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In the most recent legislative session in which the abortion ban passed, South Dakota legislators refused to ensure that our children receive comprehensive sex education that would include information about abstinence and about such precautions as emergency contraception. Even more on point, the Legislature that passed the ban on abortion defeated a bill that would have required health care facilities to provide oral and written information about emergency contraception to female rape survivors who come in as patients.

So South Dakota legislators not only prohibit pregnant rape survivors from choosing abortion, they are also depriving them of essential information about the one contraceptive method that could prevent the pregnancy in the first place.

So if proponents of the abortion ban claim that they do care about women and don’t want to close every door to help – why, then, are they passing laws that deprive women of the information they need to access emergency contraception?

Finally, it should not come as a surprise that the Legislature that outlawed abortion wants next to outlaw emergency contraception itself. The South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion that laid the groundwork for the abortion ban also concluded (without scientific basis) that emergency contraception medications “can act as early abortifacients.” If contraceptives are relabeled abortions – then it is just a simple step for the South Dakota Legislature to block access to both abortion and the contraceptives that reduce the need for abortions.

The ban signed by Rounds isn’t just about abortion, it’s about contraception and it is about how we value women and mothers. By supporting the petition to repeal the abortion ban, the people of South Dakota are sending a message that the Legislature should focus its energy on stopping violence against women rather stopping women from accessing the health care they and their families need.

<i>Chas Jewett is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and a member of Democracy in Action, a South Dakota women’s political action committee, Rapid City, S.D.