S.D. Makes Abortion Rare Through Laws And Stigma

Allen Unruh, an abortion opponent, and Kate Looby, state director of Planned Parenthood in South Dakota, listen at a meeting of the state task force on abortion.
Allen Unruh, an abortion opponent, and Kate Looby, state director of Planned Parenthood in South Dakota, listen at a meeting of the state task force on abortion. (Joe Kafka - AP)

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By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- The waiting room at the Planned Parenthood clinic was packed by the time the doctor arrived -- an hour late because of weather delays in Minneapolis.

It was clinic day, the one day a week when the only facility in South Dakota that provides abortions could take in patients. This time it was a Wednesday. The week before it was a Monday.

The day changes depending on the schedules of four doctors from Minnesota who fly here on a rotating basis to perform abortions, something no doctor in South Dakota will do. The last doctor in South Dakota to perform abortions stopped about eight years ago; the consensus in the medical community is that offering the procedure is not worth the stigma of being branded a baby killer.

South Dakota, those on both sides of the abortion debate agree, has become one of the hardest states in the country in which to obtain an abortion. One of three states in the country to have only one abortion provider -- North Dakota and Mississippi are the others -- South Dakota, largely because of a strong antiabortion lobby, is also becoming a leading national laboratory for testing the limits of state laws restricting abortion, both opponents and advocates of abortion rights say.

In 2005, the South Dakota legislature passed five laws restricting abortion, after a bill to ban abortion outright had failed by one vote in 2004. And new laws are virtually assured for the coming year. A 17-member abortion task force, made up largely of staunch abortion opponents, issued recommendations to the legislature earlier this month that included some of the most restrictive requirements for abortion in the country.

The report states that science defines life as beginning at conception and recommends a law that gives fetuses the same protection that children get after birth, thus banning abortion. Until such a ban, the task force recommends requiring that a woman watch an ultrasound of her fetus, that doctors warn women about the psychological and physical dangers of abortion, and that women receive psychological counseling before the abortion, among other measures.

As national leaders on both sides of the abortion debate focus on the upcoming Supreme Court nomination hearings of Samuel A. Alito Jr., they are watching states such as South Dakota pass more and more restrictions that might be upheld by a newly constituted, more conservative Supreme Court.

"Samuel Alito wrote the blueprint 20 years ago on how to dismantle and eventually overturn Roe," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, referring to a memo Alito wrote in 1985 in which he mentioned passing restrictions on abortion as a way to mitigate the effects of Roe v. Wade . "If he is confirmed, Alito could cast the decisive vote that allows additional attacks on women's reproductive freedom from the states to stand."

But Mary Spaulding Balch, director of the state legislation department of the National Right to Life campaign, said South Dakota is one of many states that have had success in passing laws the organization has been espousing for more than 30 years.

"Working within the fact that the Supreme Court said that it's legal to kill unborn children," she said, "it makes sense that you do your best to save whatever lives you can."

Each week, 15 to 20 or so women from across South Dakota find their way to the Sioux Falls Planned Parenthood for an abortion, no easy feat for many of them. South Dakota is home to some of the poorest counties in the country, including the poorest, Buffalo County, seat of the Crow Creek Sioux reservation. State law forbids any public funding for the $450 procedure, even in the case of rape or incest. Beyond cost, there is the distance. It's a long slog here from places like Rapid City, about 350 miles away in the western part of the state. For some women, the only way to do it -- and not pay for a hotel room -- is to make the 700-mile trip in one day.

"Women in the western side of the state don't think about abortion until they need to," said Kate Looby, Planned Parenthood's state director, "and then they're completely shocked that there's no way to receive that care unless they go to Sioux Falls." Even women in a medical or life-threatening emergency have only one hospital to go to that will perform an emergency abortion, she added. "One hospital. In the entire state, again in Sioux Falls."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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