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How an anti-abortion group defeated Governor Noem's six-week abortion ban

Dale Bartscher, the executive director for South Dakota Right To Life, lobbies Republican Rep. Rebecca Reimer on the third floor of the capitol
Lee Strubinger
Dale Bartscher, the executive director for South Dakota Right To Life, lobbies Republican Rep. Rebecca Reimer on the third floor of the Capitol.

Governor Kristi Noem’s push to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy had the support of prominent national anti-abortion groups.

But the proposal lacked support from a key organization that has held sway over state abortion policy for years. And that helps explain the proposed bill’s failure.

Governor Noem made abortion policy a focus of her State of the State address during the start of this year’s legislative session. She called on state lawmakers to pass a Texas-style abortion ban, which prevents abortions after six weeks.

“There’s more we can do," Noem said during her speech in January. “I’m asking all of you to protect the heartbeats of all these unborn children. I am bringing legislation to ban all abortions once a heartbeat can be detected."

Noem then received one of the longest standing ovations of her speech. It lasted for nearly half a minute.

2022 State of the State Address - South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem

But that fanfare was short-lived. A few weeks later, the governor could not get her proposed bill introduced.

When the governor’s office asked a committee comprised of House leadership to take up the bill, the group didn’t budge.

Later that morning, Governor Noem took questions during an impromptu press conference outside of legislative hearing rooms.

“I was not expecting them to deny a hearing to a bill, especially from Republican leadership,” Noem said.

Right to Life's role

Working quietly behind the scenes against the proposal was Dale Bartscher, the executive director of South Dakota Right To Life.

When the Texas abortion law was upheld by the courts last year, Bartscher publicly called it “an important bill.”

When the House declined to take up Gov. Noem’s bill, Bartscher said the group appreciates the governor’s anti-abortion stance. But he added, “Predominantly, South Dakota Right To Life, our number one goal is do no harm to a piece of litigation we have in the 8th Circuit Court, currently," Bartscher said. "And that’s Noem v. Planned Parenthood.”

That’s a case stemming from a state law passed in 2011. That law requires a pregnant woman consult with a pregnancy help center and wait for three days before an abortion. It’s been enjoined in the courts since 2011.

Dale Bartscher
SD Right to Life
Dale Bartscher

“We believe that the passage of a Texas-style heartbeat bill will moot the litigation that we currently have in the 8th Circuit Court," Bartscher said. "For that reason, we cannot support a Texas-style heartbeat bill verbiage.”

Some say the litigation over the 2011 law is one of the most important abortion cases in the country. Another case, Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs, is before the U.S. Supreme Court currently, giving the court a chance to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion. That right was established by the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

State Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, who is vice-president of South Dakota Right To Life, said the litigation regarding South Dakota’s 2011 case is another opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“And so, we want to make sure we preserve that case and don’t do anything to harm our efforts there,” Hansen said.

'They're very powerful'

When South Dakota Right To Life testifies on an abortion bill — whether for or against — the supermajority Republican Legislature listens.

“They’re very powerful and rightfully so," said House Majority Leader Kent Peterson, R-Salem. “They’re a very strong organization and people respect their opinion on all matters that they weigh in on.”

Peterson said the organization represents an issue that’s dear to many South Dakotans.

Introducing the governor’s bill could have put Republican lawmakers in a bind. Voting against the bill would have put them at odds with the governor. Voting for it would have put them at odds with South Dakota Right To Life.

Voting against South Dakota Right To Life is a political risk for lawmakers. The group sends out voter guides that are influential during elections.

Governor Kristi Noem still praises the organization, even after it worked to reject her Texas-style abortion ban.

“South Dakota Right To Life, for years, has been a warrior for protecting unborn lives. I’ve always appreciated the integrity they’ve brought to every discussion," Noem said. "The challenge this year is we had a bill here to deal with protecting life and we didn’t have a debate on it. I don’t necessarily place the blame on Right to Life.”

All eyes on Supreme Court

Changes to the state’s abortion laws are an annual occurrence, and South Dakota Right To Life is a perennial force in state politics. That frustrates some, like State Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission.

“Obviously they’re a huge political arm,” Heinert said. “People use this issue to raise money.”

Heinert said the state already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. He said annual bills are used to score political points.

“What is right to life? Is it right to birth? Or is this something that we should be looking at the whole aspect of childbirth?” Heinert said. “It is frustrating.”

The number of abortions in South Dakota has declined since 2011, from 600 that year to 400 in 2019. There is one abortion clinic in the state. It’s in Sioux Falls.

Kristin Hayward is with Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Hayward said the clinic adapts to any laws the Legislature passes. She’s also watching the Dobbs case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“And we keep working and the clinic will continue to be open until we know what happens with Dobbs,” Hayward said. “Just in general, we will stay open until the last light stays on. It’s important for the people of South Dakota to know we are not going anywhere.”

Neither is South Dakota Right To Life, which seeks to end abortion in the state.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.