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Abortion Ban Foes Petition for a Choice

Times Staff Writer

Volunteers pushing to overturn the nation’s most far-reaching abortion ban are surprised and delighted by the response as they circulate petitions to put the law up for a public vote.

Even in the most conservative corners of this conservative state, both Republicans and Democrats -- including a few who say they oppose abortion -- are eagerly signing the petition. In two weeks, volunteers have collected a third of the signatures they need to get a November referendum on the ban.

Some voters dismiss the abortion-rights activists as out of touch with South Dakotan values. “People here have a sense of morals and ethics,” said Darcy Patterson, 40. “I don’t want to change the law.”

But others say their legislators went too far when they voted last month to prohibit all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, unless the mother’s life is at stake.

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Spotting three teenagers with clipboards as he walked up to the Sturgis post office, Jack Hoel, 74, broke into a grin.

“I can’t wait to sign,” he said. “I was going to go out looking for this petition.”

Hoel is a staunch Republican in a county that twice backed President Bush with nearly 75% of the vote. “You have to be, in South Dakota, or you get extradited,” he joked.

But Hoel disliked the thought of politicians interfering in a family’s most intimate decisions. “It’s too personal to be legislated,” he said.

The law asserting that embryos have an “unalienable right to life” from the moment of conception is set to take effect July 1. Women will not face charges for ending pregnancies, but doctors who help them could get up to five years in prison. Even if they believe an abortion is necessary to preserve a woman’s life, physicians must do all they can to save the fetus.

The abortion ban passed overwhelmingly: 23-12 in the Senate and 50-18 in the House.

Supporters expected the measure to draw an immediate court challenge from Planned Parenthood, which operates the only clinic providing abortions in South Dakota. Abortion opponents wanted a legal fight that could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

But abortion-rights forces chose not to sue. Instead, they’re appealing directly to voters.

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On college campuses, in tiny farm towns, in tanning salons, on golf courses and in city parks, more than 400 volunteers are circulating petitions. They are organized by the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, which in turn is funded by major abortion-rights supporters such as Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I greatly appreciate your doing this,” Priscilla Massey-Swan, 46, told the three high school seniors who had skipped calculus to gather signatures.

The teenagers, who live in Rapid City, had worried their low-cut jeans, chunky necklaces and silver toe rings looked “too hippie” to earn them respect in this Black Hills town of 6,400, most famous for its annual motorcycle rally. “We should have brought Wranglers,” said Morandi Hurst, 17.

But as they filled up their petitions, their mood lifted, and they made plans to canvass even smaller towns. “I have renewed faith in the people of South Dakota,” said Serri Graslie, 18. “This is turning out much better than I thought.”

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Even opponents expect the campaign to easily collect the 17,000 valid signatures needed to put the referendum on the ballot. That would put the abortion law into legal limbo, on hold until the November election. If voters reject the law, it will be stricken from the books. If they uphold it, abortion-rights activists can still sue to block its enforcement.

A statewide poll commissioned by abortion-rights activists last month found that 57% of voters want to overturn the ban. But Rep. Thomas Brunner, a Republican who represents the region around Sturgis, said he believed that number was wrong.

“Pretty much overwhelmingly, the representatives and senators are speaking for the people they represent,” Brunner said. “Most people don’t see it as a real upsetting issue.”

Rep. Roger Hunt, the law’s chief sponsor, said a number of constituents had expressed concern about rape and incest victims. He reminds them that the ban does not prohibit such women from seeking a prescription for emergency contraceptive. The “morning-after pill” is generally effective if taken within 72 hours of intercourse.

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Hunt, a Republican, predicted a resounding victory in November: “I certainly look forward to showing the nation this is a pro-life state.”

A half-hour’s drive south of Sturgis, in downtown Rapid City, Lisa Tuttle, a 38-year-old mother of six, wrestled with the label “pro-life.”

“I don’t believe in killing a child. I think that’s horrible,” Tuttle said. “But in a bad situation, like rape or incest, women should have a choice.”

She hesitated but signed the petition.

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Flipping through his paperwork outside the Rapid City courthouse, volunteer Gary Heckenlaible, 60, spread his arms wide in exultation. “Man, we’re just zipping!” he cried.

He and his friend Shirley Frederick, 69, had collected signatures from harried mothers and brusque lawyers, from a young soldier on leave from Iraq and from an elderly Catholic woman who looked about furtively as she signed, afraid her bishop would find out.

Eileen S. Roggenthen, 57, signed with a flourish. She felt obligated; it was a form of atonement. After all, she had voted for three of the lawmakers who supported the ban. She had known they were antiabortion, but said she was more concerned with their views on agriculture.

“I thought I was an informed voter,” Roggenthen said. “I didn’t know they were so gung-ho on this.”

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With a population of 61,000, Rapid City is one of South Dakota’s urban centers and tends to be slightly more liberal than Sturgis. Still, like the rest of the state, which supported President Bush twice with 60% of the vote, Rapid City is strongly Republican. On this warm spring afternoon, about one out of every four voters outside the courthouse declined to sign the petition.

“I don’t believe in abortion. It’s just an excuse to get wild,” said Daniel Perea, 28. “Guys think, ‘Oh well, if you end up pregnant, all we have to do is come up with $300 and we can go across the state and get an abortion.’ It’s very dangerous to let people choose that.”

Perea said he spoke from experience: He helped three former girlfriends obtain abortions. He believes God punished him with a childless marriage and his recent divorce; he wants to make sure other couples don’t make the same mistake. “We have to put our foot down,” he said.

Heckenlaible did not waste time trying to convert opponents. There were too many voters to approach.

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“Thank you, sir!” he said as he collected another name.

Heckenlaible has campaigned for many liberal causes over the decades. But he said he has never seen anything like the enthusiasm for overturning the abortion ban. He and Frederick gathered 75 signatures in less than two hours.

“If someone would have told me four weeks ago that we’d be getting this level of support, I would have said, ‘You’re a liar,’ ” Heckenlaible said. “I’m enjoying this like I enjoy a 20-ounce steak. It doesn’t get any better.”

*

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

South Dakota law

The abortion legislation that was signed last month by Gov. Mike Rounds takes effect July 1. Excerpts:

* “The Legislature accepts and concurs with the conclusion of the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion, based upon written materials, scientific studies, and testimony of witnesses presented to the task force, that life begins at the time of conception.”

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* “The Legislature finds ... in recognition of the technological advances and medical experience and body of knowledge about abortions produced and made available since the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, that to fully protect the rights, interests, and health of the pregnant mother, the rights, interest, and life of her unborn child, and the mother’s fundamental natural intrinsic right to a relationship with her child, abortions in South Dakota should be prohibited.”

* “The Legislature finds that the guarantee of due process of law under the Constitution of South Dakota applies equally to born and unborn human beings.”

*

Source: South Dakota Legislature

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