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Abortion petitions in; two issues rejected

38,000 signatures turned in to put ban before voters Foes, advocates see opportunity

By Terry Woster, The Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), May 31, 2006

PIERRE - Opponents of the 2006 Legislature's ban on abortion in South Dakota delivered to the secretary of state Tuesday about 38,000 signatures on a petition to give voters a chance to veto the proposed law.

If Secretary of State Chris Nelson determines that at least 16,728 of the names are registered voters in the state, voters will decide Nov. 7 whether the Legislature was right or wrong in passing a law that makes it a felony in almost all cases for a doctor to perform an abortion.

The abortion ban is scheduled to take effect July 1, as most laws do in South Dakota. If Nelson certifies the issue to the ballot, the ban will be held in check until after the November election. If voters approve the ban, it takes effect the day after the official canvass, although a court challenge almost certainly would be filed against it in federal court.

A coalition called the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families initiated the petition drive. Dr. Maria Bell of Sioux Falls is listed on the referral forms as official sponsor. She was among those who delivered two boxes of signed petition sheets Tuesday to Nelson's office.

With her at a news conference on the Capitol steps after the delivery were Jan Nicolay, a former state legislator, and Gary Snow, a Pierre contractor who spearheaded the petition drive in central South Dakota.

Snow said pregnancy "is not the time nor the place for state intervention.''

The ban the Legislature passed doesn't allow exceptions for instances of rape or incest or to protect the health of a pregnant women. A woman facing such a situation is experiencing great trauma, Snow said, and "to take from her at this time all freedom of choice is inhumane.''

Several news reporters and about 40 supporters of the referral gathered.

Nelson told the group that, with the June 6 primary intervening, his goal is to have the petition checked and a decision on its validity made by the end of June.

"We know we absolutely have to be wrapped by the first of July,'' he said. "We'll push to try to be sooner.''

Welcoming a debate
One of the prime movers behind the ban said if the issue reaches the ballot, it would be a teaching moment for all of South Dakota.

Leslee Unruh of the Alpha Center in Sioux Falls said opponents of abortion will have the opportunity during the campaign to show the harm that the procedure does to women.

"We're glad this effort will give us the opportunity to educate the citizens, just as we educated the legislators, about how abortion hurts women,'' Unruh said. "The women of South Dakota are no longer suffering in silence.''

The abortion ban passed by the 2006 Legislature "is the wrong approach to reducing unintended pregnancies,'' former South Dakota Attorney General Roger Tellinghuisen said Tuesday.

Tellinghuisen participated in a teleconference Tuesday with Nicolay and Bell.

Nicolay said a lawsuit if the ban becomes law "would cost a great deal of money,'' but she said more important than that, the almost total ban on abortion "tells victims of rape and incest they have no options.''

Tellinghuisen said many people who aren't routinely involved in political campaigns are sure to take an interest in the debate about abortion if the referral is certified for the ballot.

"It's going to be an interesting November, for sure,'' Tellinghuisen said.

Bell said of the probable campaign ahead, "Everyone is going to have to look deep in their hearts and understand the issue.''

Nicolay said the group hasn't completed a budget for the campaign.

If the issue reaches the ballot, a "yes" vote will be a vote for the abortion ban, Nelson said. A "no" vote will be a vote to reject the law, he said. "The thing to remember is, you're voting on the law itself,'' he said.

The Healthy Families group said 1,200 volunteers from 138 South Dakota communities circulated petitions. Leaders of the group said no paid workers were used and signatures came from every county.

The abortion ban passed the Legislature 47-22 in the House and 23-12 in the Senate.

The people's turn
Rep. Shantel Krebs, R-Sioux Falls, voted for the ban. She said Tuesday that if the referral petition is certified to the ballot, citizens will have the same opportunity as lawmakers did to study the issue and take a firm stand on abortion.

"As legislators, we have to make votes on the record on these issues,'' Krebs said. "We do it after carefully studying the issues and the evidence. The referral will let the citizens make the same decision we all faced. I simply want them to be fully informed and educated before they make that decision.''

Carol Whalen, an abortion foe from Pine Ridge, agreed with Krebs.

"What is important is that the citizens elected a vast majority of pro-life legislators to serve,'' Whalen said. "These men and women, Democrats and Republicans, heard the testimony, read the evidence, and debated for three years. They decided that the current system of abortion-on-demand was extreme and harmful to women's health ... and after learning the truth, the citizens will, too."

Gov. Mike Rounds signed the ban.

The two Democrats running for their party's nomination for governor - and to challenge Rounds in November - oppose the ban and said the referral would give residents a needed opportunity to weigh in.

"I'm very pleased the people will have the final say on this issue,'' Dennis Wiese of Flandreau said during a public broadcasting forum Tuesday. "It would appear they've spoken very loudly already by their signatures.''

Jack Billion of Sioux Falls, Wiese's opponent in the June 6 primary election, said: "Every person in South Dakota should be happy this is coming to a vote. We'll be able to express our views as a state, and the electorate will decide how they want to handle this issue, so I think from that standpoint, abortion being on the ballot is nothing but a plus for all people of South Dakota.''

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