Waldlaw Blog

Thursday, April 20, 2006

South Dakota Planned Parenthood Gets Smart

For those of you who may not have been following the story, on February 9, 2006, the South Dakota Legislature overwhelmingly approved legislation that would ban all abortions not necessary to save the mother's life. The bill, South Dakota House Bill 1215 -- titled the "Women's Health and Human Life Protection Act" -- was specifically intended to instigate a court fight and, it's proponents hoped, to provide the Supreme Court with a vehicle for overturning Roe v. Wade. (For more on the bill itself and the politics surrounding its passage, see http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/2801.) Everyone expected Planned Parenthood of South Dakota -- the only clinic in the state of South Dakota still offering abortion services (which, incidentally, has to fly doctors in from Minnesota because it is too difficult to find South Dakota doctors to perform the abortions) -- to immediately file a lawsuit seeking to have House Bill 1215 declared unconstitutional. Because Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land -- and because it and subsequent cases require that any bill outlawing abortions at a minimum allow for an exception where the abortion is necessary for the health of the mother, and not just to preserve her life -- any lower court would have had to declare the bill unconstitutional. And then South Dakota would have appealed, and the case would have been on its way to the United States Supreme Court as newly constituted, with Justices Roberts and Alito taking the places of O'Connor and Rehnquist and anti-choice activists feeling confident of the outcome. But Planned Parenthood of South Dakota took a long look at the situation and decided to rewrite the play book. Instead of filing suit, they have launched a state-wide petition drive -- calling themselves the "South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families" -- relying on an 1898 state provision that allows the state's voters to reconsider any law passed by the Legislature if enough signatures are gathered. If the Campaign can collect at least 16,728 signatures from registered voters by June 19, it will prevent the bill from going into effect until the voters have had an opportunity to vote. This is an extremely smart and courageous decision by Planned Parenthood. Rather than giving the anti-abortion extremists the court fight they were eagerly anticipating, they are taking the issue to the people. If they can win at the ballot box, it will send a profound message to legislatures around the country -- and to the Supreme Court -- that the people of the United States do still, fundamentally, believe that the decision whether or not to get an abortion is a private decision that should rest with the pregnant woman, her family, and her doctor, and not with the government. And if they lose at the ballot box.... Well, then will file a federal lawsuit to block the abortion ban, and the anti-abortion folks will get the lawsuit they had hoped for. In the meantime, in an interesting aside, the New York Times reported on Sunday that the leader of the largest Indian reservation in South Dakota has promised to open an abortion clinic on tribal land if the state ban stands. (For the full NYT article, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/16/us/16dakota.html?ex=1145419200&en=3f6660ea3165001c&ei=5087%0A.) So there you have it: a face-off between the voters and the Legislature over abortion rights; a potential state/federal show-down involving the autonomy of Indian reservations; the first direct challenge to Roe v. Wade facing our new Supreme Court. And all coming from South Dakota, one of the least populated states in the country, known nationally for little more than Mount Rushmore (although I have to tell you I spent about 5 days in South Dakota several summers ago, on vacation with my in-laws, and found it to be a fascinating state with lots of things to see, including terrific natural caverns and a large mammoth excavation still in progress). June 19 is just around the corner, so we'll know soon whether the abortion ban is headed for the ballot box. It certainly will be interesting to see what happens next....


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