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Abortion rights backers optimistic about petition drive following mid-term elections

D4H abortion petition.jpg
Lee Strubinger
Organizers with Dakotans For Health hand signature gatherers petitions

Voters in three states – California, Vermont and Michigan approved abortion rights in their state constitutions on Election Day. In two traditionally red states – Montana and Kentucky, voters rejected more restrictions on reproductive care.

That outcome supporting abortion rights has backers of a South Dakota ballot drive optimistic.

On the first day to circulate petitions for the 2024 election, Ann Randall held a packet of blank petition forms at a restaurant in downtown Sioux Falls.

Randall, and dozens of others, want to put abortion rights into the South Dakota constitution.

“I’m not going to have children at my age, but I have daughters and granddaughters and friends and I think they all deserve the right to make their decisions without having our legislature, our governor tell them what to do,” Randall said.

let people decide abortion.jpg
Lee Strubinger

The petition Randall and others are circulating calling for a constitutional amendment, would provide the same rights at the state level, that the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roe V. Wade provided nationally until earlier this year.

The South Dakota ballot proposal would prohibit abortion restrictions during the first trimester and allow for some regulations in the second.

“Woman—and men—families that can’t afford another child or [cases of] rape and incest… It’s just not right that they can’t make their own choice,” Randall added.

When the U.S. Supreme court overturned Roe V. Wade in June, it returned abortion policy to the states. 

That triggered South Dakota’s near total abortion ban passed by lawmakers in 2005.

The state’s current law bans all abortions unless a mother’s life is threatened. There are no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Randall says the law is devastating for many South Dakotans.

Dr. Amy Kelley, an OBGYN from Sioux Falls, says the current law is not clear.

“There’s a lot of complexity and grey area in obstetrical care,” Kelley said. “That makes it hard to know if what we’re doing every day is okay or not.”

Kelley said the circumstances around abortion involve medical, not legal questions. She said the existing language providing an exception to save the life of the mother is vague.

“Where is that point where I say, ‘Okay, this is bad enough?’” Kelley said. “It’s a judgement call and it’s also the patient’s call. Some patients are willing to put their life on the line in their pregnancy. And that’s their choice, but that’s kind of the point. It should be their choice because it’s their life that’s at stake.”

Kelley supports adding the right to abortion access in the state constitution. An abortion rights group called Dakotans for Health supports the ballot proposal.

One anti-abortion group is already organizing against the petition drive. Dale Bartscher is the president of South Dakota Right To Life.

“We’ve seen these circulations firsthand. Many of them lie. They mislead. They don’t tell the truth to the public about the measure that they’re circulating," Bartscher said. "That’s where South Dakotans can take our stand.”

Bartscher said the amendment would legalize late term abortions. The amendment allows lawmakers to prohibit third trimester abortions.

It’s not the first time South Dakota Right To Life has worked on abortion-related ballot questions. State residents have voted twice on abortion restrictions in 2006 and 2008 and rejected both.

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

Bartscher said the new ballot initiative, if passed, would override 50 years of abortion policy his group and the state legislature have put in place.

“We’re calling on our volunteers to help inform the public about how truly radical and out of step this amendment is," Bartscher added.

In South Dakota the conservative control of state government provides support for its current anti-abortion position.

Emily Wanless, a political science professor at Augustana University, said the framing of the abortion ballot question is very complex.

“If you look at some of the extreme nature that is taken with abortion restrictions, there’s a subset of people who are uncomfortable with being that absolute," Wanless said.

She points to the recent midterm election outcomes saying they show voters in other conservative states are not willing to support restrictions.

“Conservative ideology," Wanless added, "largely corresponding with the Republican party—is that if you’re about freedom and liberty it’s really hard to contend with taking away people’s rights."

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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