Originally Published April 18, 2006
Running through the grocery store, Jen Nicolay was stopped by an older woman. Before Nicolay was able to ask the woman what she wanted, she was embraced by the woman, who thanked her for everything she was doing for the women of South Dakota and encouraged her to keep up the fight.
“I get that response often,” Nicolay said.
As the spokesperson for the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, Nicolay has become the voice of the campaign committee devoted to reversing South Dakota’s abortion ban. The campaign has to gather 16,728 signatures, from registered voters in the state by June 19. If they are successful, a referendum will be placed on the general election ballot in November.
The abortion ban is responsible for placing the strictest state restrictions on abortions the nation has seen in 15 years.
To the outrage of some and the delight of others, the law, which passed as HB 1215, has reopened the door for the reproductive rights battle.
“South Dakota has a history of passing pro-life legislation,” said Roger Hunt, a state representative for South Dakota.
“For the past 15 years, we (South Dakota) have been involved in informed consent laws and criminal laws recognizing unborn children in crimes,” Hunt said.
One of the moves taken by the South Dakota legislature was the creation of The South Dakota Task Force on Abortion. Gov. Mike Rounds, with other legislative members appointed the 17 member committee. They gathered 2000 affidavits from women who had had an abortion or counseled women who had had an abortion, Hunt said. “We did what no other state legislature has ever done on the subject of abortion,” he said.
“To my knowledge nobody had sat down and collected that information.”
The law makes it a crime for any doctor to perform an abortion unless the procedure is necessary to save the woman’s life. The law makes no exception for cases of rape and incest.
Hunt said the bill is declaring that life begins at conception and is a direct attempt to overturn the abortion precedent case, Roe v. Wade.
Anti-abortion efforts have intensified due to the new Supreme Court Justices on the bench, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who are known to have conservative track records, Hunt said.
“Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito are bringing new arguments that (the Court) wouldn’t have contemplated before,” Hunt said.
Hunt is banking on one or more justices stepping down before the new law makes it to the Court, leaving an opportunity for President Bush to nominate another conservative justice, which would swing the Roe v. Wade vote.
“Next month, Justice Stevens will be 86 years old, and when you take into account that HB 1215 will take two and a half to three years to reach the high court,” Hunt said, “that’s icing on the cake.”
Hunt said he is not worried about the campaign against the ban. He said he sees it as another way of declaring South Dakota’s views on abortion.
“I welcome the opportunity, once and for all, to prove that south Dakota is a pro-life state,” Hunt said.
Hunt expects the referendum to bring more attention to the abortion issue.
“Watch the momentum that blows from it.”
The ban has also been a wake-up call to liberals and pro-choice activists that the abortion battle is not over.
“I think (this) law is obviously unconstitutional,” said Gretchen Borchelt, counsel for the National Women’s Law Center.
“I think they (the South Dakota law’s supporters) are emboldened by the two new justices,” Borchelt said of the anti-abortion activists.
She said there is an issue with complacency on the issue of reproductive rights.
“Hopefully, this will really galvanize people,” she said.
At least 10 states have been following the example of South Dakota, and passing broad abortion bans, Borchelt said.
According to some pro-choice activists, this is part of a “war on abortion” being waged state by state rather than on a national level.
“There are pharmacists who continue to refuse to dispense birth control,” Borchelt said. “These ‘culture-of-life people’ claiming to act on behalf of the unborn to promote life – what they are really doing is taking rights away from women.”
For Beatriz Solis, Central American studies professor and women’s reproductive health activist, the bigger issue is the fact that the ban in South Dakota, and the move toward such wide restrictions on access to reproductive care, mimics third world country policies and could lead to devastating consequences.
“It mirrors Central America and it’s completely mind-boggling,” Solis said.
“When you look at the U.S., (it is) one of the top countries in the world, but right now when it comes to social policy, there is an enormous slippage in terms of women’s status in society.”
Solis warns legislators of letting their religious convictions take over governmental policy, which is a lesson learned from Latin America.
“Religion plays (an) enormous role, creating a deepening entrenched sentiment to say no to abortion,” she said.
Religious leaders such as Cardinal Rolando Ibravo in Nicaragua have gained so much power in the country’s legislature that access to contraception has been virtually eliminated, and abortions have been limited to cases when the woman’s life is in danger, Solis said. Generally, the process of getting a judge to sign off on one of these “life-saving” abortions is so tedious, that women end up dying while they wait.
This has resulted in increasingly high rates of illegal “back-alley” abortions, and high maternal mortality rates.
“Forcing young girls and women to have a child out of violence is the stone ages,” Solis said.
“There is one common denominator here: Why is it that women cannot have control over their fertility? Who’s going to live that life, the consequences of that life? “It is women that will bear that burden,” Solis said.
“Is it that women are so mortally weak that they can’t make that decision?”
It is some of these same concerns that have forced people like Nicolay to organize a movement to revoke this ban, which Nicolay said is “too extreme.”
“A group of people, of all walks of life felt very strongly that the bill passed went to far,” she said.
“It banned all abortions, with no exceptions for rape, incest, or for the health of the woman. A doctor can be charged with a felony and can serve up to five years in prison,” she said.
Nicolay is adamant in saying that the ban is not representative of the people of South Dakota. She said that is one of the reasons she thinks the campaign has had such a successful start although much work lies ahead.
“After the first week we had 15 percent of the signatures needed,” Nicolay said.
“That’s tremendous but we don’t want to be overconfident.”
Connie Llanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.