South Dakota scraps abortion ban

Times Staff Writer

South Dakota voters on Tuesday decisively rejected the toughest abortion ban in the nation, repealing a law that subjected doctors to five years in prison if they terminated a pregnancy for any reason except to prevent the woman’s death.

Abortion-rights supporters erupted in whoops and cheers as the returns scrolled across a television screen in their temporary headquarters at a hotel ballroom. They had relied on money and volunteers from across the nation to defeat the ban -- and said they hoped the vote would reverberate far beyond this sparsely populated, socially conservative state.

“People said we were crazy to put this on the ballot in South Dakota, but you know, we did it -- and we won!” said Kate Looby, a Planned Parenthood lobbyist. “If you can’t win an abortion ban in South Dakota, most states are going to be very hesitant to try this. We’re not seen as a bastion of liberal thinking out here.”

But supporters of the ban said the vote settled nothing -- not nationally, and not in South Dakota. They fully intend, they said, to be back again next year, pressing the same cause.


“This is a marathon, and we have lots of energy left,” said Leslee Unruh, the campaign manager. “We can do this again if we have to. We’re in it for the long haul.”

The ban lost 55% to 45%.

Another closely watched ballot measure in South Dakota -- a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage -- passed. Bans on same-sex marriage were poised to pass easily in Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Colorado, Idaho and Wisconsin.

“This shows that people do turn out to uphold marriage,” said Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokesman for the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, which supported the marriage amendments.

In Arizona, voters were rejecting the gay-marriage ban. If the results hold, Arizona voters will be the first to defeat a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; 26 other states have amendments.

The amendments have been broadly worded to invalidate not only same-sex marriage, but also domestic partnerships. Opponents of the ban argue that the broad wording affects heterosexual couples as well as gay and lesbian couples; for instance, they warned voters that unmarried senior citizens living together could lose the right to visit each other in the hospital.

Here in South Dakota, the abortion ban dominated political debate in a year when the gubernatorial and U.S. House races attracted little attention. (Both were blowouts, with Republican Michael Rounds winning a second term as governor and Democrat Stephanie Herseth returning to Washington as the state’s lone House representative.)

The Legislature approved the abortion ban by a wide margin in February, expecting opponents to sue. They hoped the case would become a vehicle for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that women have a constitutional right to abortion.

Instead of suing, however, abortion-rights supporters took to the streets with a petition. They easily collected enough signatures to put the law to a popular vote, setting in motion a hard-fought and often emotional campaign. Each side spent about $2 million and mobilized thousands of volunteers from across South Dakota and around the nation.

“It’s really been ground zero on the abortion issue,” Earll said.

At one church, pastors and elders organized a round-the-clock prayer vigil that lasted for months, with volunteers taking shifts to ask God for the law’s success.

Parking his rusting Chevy Corsica outside a county government building, a worn Bible on the seat beside him, Dave Sinkgraven, 22, took one last shift Tuesday afternoon. “We’re all tired and worn out, but this is our big day,” he said.

Polls repeatedly showed that many voters were uneasy that the law -- which never went into effect -- provided no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, or if the pregnancy was putting the woman’s health at risk. (Even if the woman was dying, the law required physicians to do their utmost to save the fetus.)

Abortion-rights activists pushed hard on that issue, winning over voters such as Norma Flanagan, 72, who said she opposed abortion but couldn’t vote for the law because “it was just too cut and dried.”

Unruh, however, refused to second-guess the strategy to push for a total ban. “I’ve been fighting [abortion-rights supporters] for years,” she said. “We figured if we were going to do this, we might as well protect all children.”

She said the campaign was already looking ahead to the next abortion fight: “We have an army now that we didn’t have before.”

At the victory party Tuesday, Looby used similar language to rally supporters: “We have galvanized people from every part of the state,” she said. “We are so much stronger today.”