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Abortion Wait Raises Debate

House Bill 12-37 was signed by Governor Dennis Daugaard earlier this month, extending South Dakota’s 72-hour abortion waiting period to not include weekends or holidays. As SDPB’s Jilanne Doom reports in today’s Dakota Digest, though the bill is now law, the abortion argument in the state is far from over.

“Hi, I’m Caitlin DeGroot. I’m 21 and I am a mom of an almost-two-year-old Charlie. Charlie, you want to say hi?”

Caitlin learned she was pregnant with her daughter three months after she graduated high school and – like many young women in her position – she was faced with a tough decision.

“The thought of abortion does go through your mind because you’re like, well, can I really handle this? Do I know what’s coming? Having a child is a huge responsibility,” Caitlin said.

Although she chose to continue with her pregnancy, many women decide otherwise. And a new bill signed by Governor Dennis Daugaard makes seeking abortion a longer process.

The current law says there’s a 72-hour waiting period after a woman visits with a physician – which is the longest of any state in the nation. The changes passed this year. The changes passed this year don’t allow weekends and holidays to count in those three days – which in some circumstances extends the waiting period even longer.

“Twice in South Dakota we have voted to have a ban on abortion and twice that has been rejected,” Blake said.

Susy Blake is on the board of directors for the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families. She says these elections that took place in 2005 and 2008 portray how South Dakota residents feel about abortion – that the procedure is legal and is the decision of the pregnant woman.

“I think our South Dakota voters have spoken on this issue and how they feel about making that available to women and yet we have a legislature that just doesn’t seem to get the point and frankly votes against what their constituents are saying they want,” Blake said.

Blake says representatives of her organization and Planned Parenthood testified against the wait extension at hearings but the bill still made it through to the governor’s desk. Planned Parenthood – the family planning organization that manages the only abortion clinic in South Dakota – didn’t respond to calls for comment on the law.

But legislators say this law doesn’t affect the legality of abortion in South Dakota. Representative Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids – who introduced House Bill 12-37 – says this law is solely to ensure that women have enough time to receive abortion counseling, ask questions and know their rights.

“All that this bill does that we passed this year does is help ensure that the pregnant mother is able to get the counseling that she needs from a pregnancy help center in order that she can make that fully informed decision,” Hanson said.

Hansen says the law is now more similar to South Dakota’s adoption statute – which gives a woman 15 days to decide whether or not to put her child up for adoption. He says the abortion waiting period allows a woman a few extra days and help from a counseling center to think about what could be an irrevocable decision.

“If a baby is given up for adoption and a woman a year and a half later says wait a second, something was wrong. I want my baby back. They have the opportunity to go to court and say, look my rights were violated, I wasn’t fully informed, I was coerced into giving this baby up for adoption and they can have that fight in the court. With abortion, you don’t have that right; you don’t have that privilege because the baby is dead,” Hanson said.

Mandatory counseling is also a portion of South Dakota’s abortion law. While Hansen says the counseling is only to ensure that women are fully informed, Susy Blake says these centers that women are forced to visit often have a religiously-based agenda which is unconstitutional. She says women should instead rely on the support systems closest to them, like their family, friends or – if they choose – their pastors.

“Who are your support systems? Can you talk with them? Are you talking with them? Would you like us to help you do that? You know, those are the people that know you. Those are the people that you need to go to and to rely on because they know you and they know what your situation is. Not someone that has an agenda behind all this,” Blake said.

Caitlin DeGroot didn’t seek professional counseling when she learned of her pregnancy – but she understands where the law is coming from.

“Having the counseling, having someone talk to you who knows exactly what’s going on – and a professional – that way you’re not so overwhelmed by the whole think when it comes about. And then if you do decide to go through with it, you’ve talked about it, you’ve talked to someone, you’ve learned about what you need to learn about. And if you decide that’s what you need to do, then you know for sure that you’ve had all the help that you could get and this is what you need to do for your life,” DeGroot said.

While the Campaign for Healthy Families and other organizations that support legalized abortions disagree with the content of the law – it’s also the law’s language that Blake says is offensive.

“It’s very insulting to women to say we don’t think you can make this decision over the weekend. We don’t think you’re capable of making this decision if it’s a holiday,” DeGroot said.

But Representative Hanson says these kinds of comments – which are cropping up in blogs and posts around the internet – are not an accurate representation of what the legislature is trying to accomplish.

"I mean, it’s those sorts of comments that do a disservice to our political process,” Hanson said.

And it’s the notion of a political process that many in the state question if it’s the state’s place to influence a decision that has been ruled legal.

As Caitlin watches her daughter Charlie play, she doesn’t know the answer to that question. But she does believe pregnant mothers need to know the physical and psychological effects before they make their final decision.

“I do think that it’s definitely the mother’s choice whether she wants one or not. And whether it’s the state’s job to say ‘no you can’t have one,’ I don’t know if that’s right or not, but I do think that they need to be fully informed of everything that will happen and everything that’s happening with the baby,” DeGroot said.

Many aspects of South Dakota's abortion restrictions are still being challenged in court.  Although the new law is being discussed and debated locally, there's no indication if the courts will have the final say.