South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Mike Rounds set the stage for an epic women’s rights battle when he signed a state law March 6 making all abortions a crime, including in cases of rape, incest and situations endangering the mother’s health. It would only permit abortion to save the woman’s life.

Doctors who perform abortions would be charged with a felony and could get up to five years in jail.

The law is supposed to take effect July 1, but legal challenges are expected to delay implementation, possibly for years, as the case heads to the Supreme Court. There the bill’s right-wing backers are banking on Bush appointees Roberts and Alito to uphold the measure, overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

In an open letter, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the organization is “committed to using all available legal means” to prevent the bill from ever taking effect and to “protect the health and safety of women.” Her statement was echoed by other national women’s groups.

Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota said the law “violates the right of women and families to make private, personal decisions about whether and when to have a family.” By signing it, “Gov. Rounds criminalized health care for women in South Dakota,” Sarah Stoesz, the group’s president, said.

South Dakota has only one abortion provider — the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls, on the eastern side of the state.

The clinic serves about 2,000 patients a year, and provides about 800 abortions. Two-thirds of its patients are near or below the federal poverty level ($14,000 for a single person), and three-fourths are uninsured.

In South Dakota, one in six women aged 15-44 have incomes under the federal poverty level and one in seven have no health insurance.

According to a 2005 Rural School and Community Trust report, South Dakota’s rural communities have the eighth lowest rural per capita income in the nation, ninth highest child poverty rates and sixth highest percentage of rural households headed by women with pre-school age children living in poverty.

Native Americans, 8.3 percent of South Dakota’s population, are among the state’s poorest.

Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation, told the World, “This bill hurts the poorest of the poor. In this state, a lot of us fit into that category.” Because of federal downsizing and privatization of Indian health care, she said, Native Americans increasingly have to travel to the Planned Parenthood clinic for reproductive complications and abortions.

Along with criminalizing abortion, “the religious right-wing is trying very hard to limit women’s access to family planning,” putting women “at high risk of conceiving an unwanted child,” Asetoyer said.

“I don’t appreciate state politicians making decisions over my reproductive health. They have no idea what it’s like to have an unwanted pregnancy — they have no idea what it’s like to be pregnant!” she said of the mostly male legislators.

Noting that the state will incur huge expenses defending the law in court, the Rapid City, S.D., Journal editorialized March 7, “South Dakota could better use that money on a variety of underfunded needs in the state, such as education, women’s health and children’s welfare.”

“Women who want an abortion will find a way to get one,” the Journal said. “Women who can afford it will travel to a state where abortion is legal, and those who don’t have the money will find underground sources that aren’t necessarily safe.” In a Houston Chronicle commentary, Asetoyer and Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, wrote, “Rather than admit that this law will hurt pregnant women and mothers, South Dakota’s legislators pretend it protects them. Indeed, the authors of this bill call it ‘The Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act.’ In another age we might expect that legislation so-named would address such urgent women’s health problems as breast and cervical cancer, the fact that 88,350 South Dakotans are without health insurance, the equivalent of 12 percent of the state’s population, or the fact that South Dakota guarantees no paid maternity leave for the many mothers who must continue working in order to feed their families.”

Similar bills are being proposed in several states.

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.