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South Dakota's abortion ban has sweeping implications

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PIERRE, S.D. -- The South Dakota Legislature created a firestorm when it passed a bill that banned abortion with only one exception: to save the life of the mother. It was signed by Gov. Mike Rounds on March 6.

The bill will become law on July 1 unless either a lawsuit or petitioners get the issue on the November ballot. The law will make it a felony for any doctor to perform an abortion unless the procedure is necessary to save the woman's life. It would make no exception for cases of rape or incest.

Currently only one clinic in the state performs abortions: the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls at the extreme eastern part of the state. Doctors from Minnesota come to the clinic, said Kate Looby, director of South Dakota's Planned Parenthood.

Looby told the Legislature that she would consider filing a lawsuit to stop the law from taking effect. She is now working to gather signatures on the petition. Some legislators, while debating the bill, were aware that a lawsuit would be imminent and that it eventually would end up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Some comments from the floor of each house reflected an interest in overturning Roe v. Wade.

A fund has been set up to collect donations to help defray the costs of possible litigation; however, if the petition drive collects enough signatures, litigation will be delayed or not considered.

Both sides of the issue claim they are ready to bring the issue to a vote. Polls indicate the bill will be repealed on a statewide vote because it is too extreme.

Banning abortion is an affront to women and denies them the choice over their bodies that the Creator has given them, said Cecilia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

"I have very strong opinions of what happened. These are a bunch of white guys determining what a woman should do with her body," Fire Thunder said.

Fire Thunder was a nurse and has worked with women who were traumatized by rape.

"When a woman is raped and becomes pregnant she does not have the choice of aborting. How many men at the state house have ever been raped?" Fire Thunder asked.

American Indian women will be impacted, if the law takes effect, in greater numbers than any other group. According to national statistics, American Indian women are sexually assaulted at a rate 3.5 times higher than all other racial groups. That means there are seven rapes per 1,000 American Indian women.

"It is very important that we have access to safe, legal pregnancy termination services, whether it is emergency contraceptives right after the assault or an abortion service," said Charon Asetoyer, director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center located on the Yankton Sioux Reservation.

She said her organization gets asked weekly by women for referrals. She added that her organization refers the women to Planned Parenthood.

American Indian women who live in the western part of South Dakota must either travel the few hundred miles to Sioux Falls or to Nebraska, which in both cases becomes expensive.

"This will force women out of the state and would cost more money and more time and a lot of women may not realize they have that option. It increases the trauma for those who have been sexually assaulted," Asetoyer said.

"It's this big myth that Native American women don't terminate pregnancies; they have always terminated pregnancies, do now and will in the future," she said.

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She said it is the woman's personal business and that it is not to be scrutinized in the political arena.

Fire Thunder echoed that sentiment and added that adequate funding for sex education, including instructions on how to use contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancy, should be a priority.

A bill that was defeated in the current session of the state Legislature would have dictated a method of teaching sex education that was based on abstinence only.

"If they are going to outlaw abortions [they should] put more money into sex education and pregnancy prevention. It's fine to tell people to abstain from sex. Adult people in our country expect young people to abstain when they don't abstain," she said.

"It's my personal opinion that it's a woman's choice. She makes the decision and the only person she is going to be accountable to is the Creator and the spirit of that child," Fire Thunder said.

Both women said they would support a move to build a Planned Parenthood-type clinic on a reservation where the state would not have jurisdiction. Fire Thunder said Pine Ridge would not be the place.

"I think that somewhere on any reservation in South Dakota, somebody has to step up and make that offer and build such a facility," Fire Thunder said, adding that she will not be that person.

The anti-abortion bill has been in the works the past few years during legislative sessions. Rounds vetoed the last bill that came up two years ago on a technicality. He signed the bill this year and the latest poll, taken by a national polling company, found his rating had dropped substantially from a 72 percent favorability rating to 58 percent during the month in which the abortion bill was mostly debated.

Seven other bills that would have restricted women's rights were also defeated this year. An informed consent bill would have required a woman who considered an abortion to undergo a mental screening. Asetoyer said that would open the door to discrimination against women.

Past versions of the abortion bill were supported by out-of-state organizations and many critics claim that is the case this year as well.

"This bill was driven by a small group of right-wing, religious coalition groups. They are trying to do this in several states and they targeted South Dakota primarily because it could be swayed.

Fire Thunder drew a parallel with sovereignty of nations by saying that a woman is a sovereign nation.

"The Creator gave every human being [the right] to make choices for yourself. Another person may not think that is the right choice and a lot of people have made bad choices in their lives, but it's their choice," Fire Thunder said.

"We have to honor the gift the Creator gave us; one of the greatest gifts is to choose for ourselves."

Fire Thunder said she hoped that women who were raped would band together and send a powerful voice across the country.

During many of the hearings on the abortion ban bill, many American Indian women were present as witnesses or observers in hearing rooms.

"It is so inspiring to see this groundswell of Native American women to fight for our rights," Asetoyer said.