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South Dakota abortion fight far from over following Supreme Court decision

Protesters hold signs in Rapid City criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Lee Strubinger
Protesters hold signs in Rapid City criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Dozens of protesters stood outside the federal courthouse building in Rapid City the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade. 

Some said they were numb. Others, like Heather Herbaugh-Abourezk and her partner, Duran, wanted to share the experience.  

“I just wanted to be with people who felt as sad and heartbroken as I do,” Heather said. “And just show them that we’re not powerless.” 

The court’s ruling triggered an abortion ban South Dakota lawmakers passed over 15 years ago. The law bans most abortions in South Dakota, except to save the life of the pregnant person. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. 

“There’s anger, shock, outrage, but also this feeling — the need to do something,” Duran Abourezk said. “That doesn’t fade. That doesn’t go away.” 

It’s been nearly two weeks since the end of elective abortions in South Dakota.  

More legislation possible

Republican legislative leaders and Governor Kristi Noem plan to call a special session. They’ve said their goal is to “save lives.” No specific policies have been introduced. 

Noem praised the decision on various talk shows. 

On CBS’s "Face The Nation" with Margaret Brennan, Noem said the abortion debate goes back to the states. 

“What’s incredible and what’s going on is the people will decide,” Noem said. 

Lee Strubinger
A protest in Rapid City against the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade.

South Dakota voters have already rejected abortion bans two times — first in 2006, and again in 2008. One did not have an exception for rape, incest or health of the mother. The other one did. 

Both were rejected with 55 percent of the vote. 

Noem said the Republican-controlled Legislature will determine further abortion law in the state. 

“Elected officials at the state level is who they’ll be talking to to decide what their state’s laws look like,” she added. 

Right to Life's perspective

In addition to the Legislature, there’s another group that lawmakers defer to on the issue of abortion policy. That group is South Dakota Right To Life.

It worked behind the scenes last session to defeat Noem’s six-week, Texas-style abortion ban. It was concerned the proposal would negatively affect a case before the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.  

The group sends out election guides that are influential during campaign season. Dale Bartscher is the executive director of South Dakota Right To Life. On SDPB’s "In The Moment," Bartscher was not willing to talk about proposals that may be in the works.  

“We’ll wait and see," Bartscher said. "I would simply say to the listening audience stay tuned. Some significant things are about to happen.” 

Bartscher declined to say whether his group would support an out-of-state abortion travel ban. He would not talk about proposals related to emergency contraception and birth control.  

Bartscher and some lawmakers have suggested strengthening laws and resources that help women navigate their pregnancies with options and resources. 

That’s something South Dakota Right To Life said it’s committed to.  Bartscher said there are six pregnancy resource centers in the state — four in East River and two West River. 

“And, we’ll continue to plant additional pregnancy resource centers to help our mothers and fathers who are walking through an unplanned pregnancy,” Bartscher added. 

Many of those resources are compiled on a new website from the state called Life.SD.Gov. It was announced on the day the Supreme Court released its decision.  A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the finishing touches on the website were completed that morning. 

“The resources identified on the website had previously existed within state government agencies,” Tony Mangan said in an email. “The website brings all those resources together in one convenient location for mothers and families to use.” 

Petition in the works 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors in South Dakota performed roughly 300 to 500 abortions annually. 

Some activists want to ensure that right continues as part of the state’s constitution. 

Rick Weiland is with the healthcare advocacy group Dakotans For Health. 

“The decision by the court, as you well know, was ‘let’s put it back to the states and let the voters decide.’ So that’s what we’re doing,” Weiland said. “We’re going to give the voters a choice, not a Legislature that’s heavily tilted.” 

Weiland said a potential constitutional amendment would essentially codify Roe v. Wade. The language is now before the Attorney General’s Office, which will give the proposed ballot question a summary. The group cannot start circulating petitions until after the 2022 election. That means voters wouldn’t weigh in on the measure until 2024.  

In the meantime, Planned Parenthood North Central States is staffing up its locations to deal with an influx of patients. They’re also asking other health systems to provide abortion care. 

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.
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