When Leslee Unruh had an abortion in South Dakota 32 years ago,her life changed forever.
Unruh,now 51 and a mother and grandmother,has been haunted by the thoughts of who her unborn child could have become. She vowed to prevent other women from making the same choice she did.
“I was driven by the women that I've worked with over the years – women who were not warned about the dangers of abortion and had a right to have their child,” she said.
And now she is the closest she has ever gotten to a full-blown abortion ban in South Dakota – HB1215,which is on the ballot for voters to decide in November.
The proposal,citing new medical evidence,would outlaw abortion,except in cases of medical danger or rape. Doctors caught performing an abortion could end up in prison for up to five years.
If voters support HB1215,litigation could lead to the Supreme Court re-examining Roe v. Wade,the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.
A long fight heads to the ballot
The proposed ban comes from a long line of state legislation that has picked away at Roe v. Wade. Last summer,the South Dakota legislature decided to study the past 33 years of abortion in the state.
A commission report included medical evidence claiming life begins at conception and 2,000 affidavits from women who experienced post-abortion trauma. Supporters of the ban hope this new evidence will be used to reverse Roe.
However,pro-choice advocates believe the report shows the one-sided nature of the study.
“The task force was a complete travesty and had no value beyond creating political cover for extremists who were intent on eliminating the legal right to abortion care,” said Sarah Stoesz,president of Planned Parenthood of North Dakota,South Dakota and Minnesota.
Planned Parenthood is the only organization that provides abortions in South Dakota because no doctors in the state are willing to perform the procedure. Planned Parenthood has flown doctors in from Minnesota twice a week for the past 10 years. Roughly 800 abortions take place in South Dakota each year.
Planned Parenthood and other choice advocates created the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families to fight the ban. In South Dakota,opponents of laws passed by the legislature can put them to referendum. The coalition collected 38,000 signatures,twice what was needed,to place HB1215 on the November ballot.
“We believe that this issue should be in the hands of the people,” Stoesz said.
Now,advocates on both sides are in a divisive campaign to get their messages out to South Dakotans – using a combination of TV ads and rallies throughout the state.
The time is right in South Dakota
Anti-abortion activity in South Dakota was light until the 1980s when the state adopted an informed consent law.
It requires women to sign a legal document declaring they understand the implications of an abortion. South Dakota was one of the first to have such a law,according to Reuben Bezpaletz,a researcher at the South Dakota legislature.
Anti-abortion bills proliferated during the 1990s. Rep. Roger Hunt,R-Lincoln,introduced a bill that refined informed consent rules in 1993. In 1997,he introduced a ban on partial birth abortion. Both passed easily. An abortion ban failed in 2003.
Hunt,HB1215's prime sponsor,calls it consistent with South Dakota history.
“We didn't wake up one morning to say we are going to ban abortion,” he said. “We have a legislative history for 1215 secured by the 10th Amendment,and we are exercising our right to adopt this measure.”
The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that powers not delegated or prohibited by the federal government are left to the states.
What does South Dakota mean to the rest of us?
Louis Michael Seidman,a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center disagrees that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe if the South Dakota law withstands the ballot challenge and is challenged in court.
“The Supreme Court will not reverse a decision just because of new facts,” he said. “As things stand now,there are five justices committed to not overturning Roe. But,a number of them are elderly. If a new justice is appointed,it might give opponents of Roe a majority.”
In addition,Seidman predicted that,if the Supreme Court were to decide on South Dakota's abortion ban tomorrow,the court would strike down the law.
“The government has taken a stance not to decide what is life because it's a philosophical question,” he said.
Hunt believes a legal challenge is likely if HB1215 survives. “When the Supreme Court is confronted with a new body of evidence,it will reverse itself,” he said.
National pro-life organizations support HB1215. “The law protects the lives of unborn children. We are extremely excited about the passage and are working with the people in South Dakota,” said Jim Sedlak,vice president of the American Life League.
Others feel a Supreme Court reversal of Roe would be a step backward. “The abortion ban promises a future filled with images from the past,” said Jatrice Martel Gaiter,president of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington,D.C.
“We sacrificed thousands of women over many years because of the refusal to provide them with access to health care and education. This is frightening in Washington,given our colonial status,” Gaiter said. She noted Congress has authority over local laws,and the Republican majority could enact a D.C. abortion ban.
Campaigning for a cause
Back in South Dakota,Unruh is on a mission to spread the word. She is traveling throughout the state in a mobile pregnancy center she calls “the fleet for little feet.”
The bus,which she manages,is equipped with a portable sonogram machine,volunteers and educational materials. Unruh holds rallies to spread the message.
“It's a pregnancy care center on wheels,” Unruh said. “We have women on board to discuss how to prevent teen pregnancies and sexual integrity. We are about educating women about their choices.”
South Dakotans for 1215 has collected $50,000,in mostly small contributions from state residents. The Campaign for Healthy Families raised $116,000 as of June 28,according to a report filed with the South Dakota Secretary of State. Many of the contributions came from outside the state.
Stoesz promises that Planned Parenthood clinics in South Dakota will remain open if the initiative fails.
“We are promoting birth control and health choices. We are working hard to ensure women and families have the information and services they need so they don't have unplanned pregnancies,” she said.
“We would like the abortion rate to go down as much as it can. We have no intention in promoting or extending the abortion rate any higher than it is. We'd like the rate to go to zero if it can,” Stoesz said.