GOP lawmakers try to thwart abortion rights ballot initiative in South Dakota

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota's Republican-led Legislature is trying to thwart a proposed ballot initiative that would enable voters to protect abortion rights in the state constitution. The initiative's leader says the GOP efforts threaten the state's tradition of direct democracy.

Supporters need about 35,000 valid signatures submitted by May 7 to qualify for the November ballot. Dakotans for Health co-founder Rick Weiland said they already have more than 50,000.

Republican lawmakers say the language is too extreme and overwhelmingly adopted a resolution opposing the initiative after grilling Weiland during a committee hearing.

INITIATIVE WOULD ALLOW MOST ABORTIONS

South Dakota outlaws all abortions except to save the life of the mother under a trigger ban that took effect in 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade.

If voters approve it, the three-paragraph addition to the South Dakota Constitution would ban the state from regulating abortion in the first trimester and allow regulations for the second trimester “only in ways that are reasonably related to the physical health of the pregnant woman.” The state could regulate or prohibit third-trimester abortions, “except when abortion is necessary, in the medical judgment of the woman’s physician, to preserve the life or health of the pregnant woman.”

“We looked at the rights that women had for 50 years under Roe v. Wade, basically took that language and used it in our amendment,” Weiland said.

Seven states have had abortion-related ballot measures since the Dobbs decision, and voters favored abortion rights in all of them. Four of those -- in California, Michigan, Ohio and Vermont -- enshrined abortion rights in their constitutions.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE RESPONSE?

The South Dakota Legislature's resolution opposing the initiative says the measure “would severely restrict any future enactment of protections for a pregnant woman, her child, and her healthcare providers," and “would fail to protect human life, would fail to protect a pregnant woman, and would fail to protect the child she bears.”

Republican House Majority Leader Will Mortenson said they approved the resolution to help the public by pointing out “some of the unintended or intended, maybe, consequences of the measure so that the public could see what it does in practical effect.”

Republican Rep. Jon Hansen — who co-chairs the Life Defense Fund, formed to defeat the initiative — said its language goes too far and “bans reasonable, commonsense, bipartisan protections that this state has had in place for decades.”

“When Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, we could at least have protections to say if there's going to be an abortion, it needs to be done by a physician, under a physician's supervision, in an inspected facility,” Hansen said. “You can't have those protections in the first trimester of this proposed constitutional amendment. That's insane. That's way too extreme.”

Weiland said the language conforms with Roe v. Wade and efforts to say otherwise are misleading and ill-informed.

Democratic House Minority Leader Oren Lesmeister said voters, not lawmakers, should decide. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Reynold Nesiba also supports the initiative.

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, however, is not supporting the initiative, telling its supporters in a December email that the language "isn’t sufficient to restore abortion access in South Dakota.”

TRYING TO REMOVE SIGNATURES

The South Dakota House on Tuesday passed a bill by Hansen that would allow signers of initiative petitions to withdraw their signatures. It now goes to the Senate.

Hansen said the bill is about people being misled or “fraudulently induced" to sign petitions. Weiland said Hansen's bill is an attack on direct democracy. Hansen said, “This is a right squarely in the hands of the person who signed; if they want to withdraw, they can withdraw.”

Democratic lawmakers on Thursday brought up concerns about potential abuses and class-action lawsuits over signature removals. They said state laws already exist to ensure ballot initiatives are done properly.

A VIDEO FOR DOCTORS

The Senate will soon weigh a House-passed bill that would require the state Department of Health, which answers to Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, to create an informational video, with consultation from the state attorney general and legal and medical experts, describing how the state’s abortion laws should be applied.

Republican Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt said she brought the bill to provide clarification after questions from providers about when they can intervene to save a pregnant woman's life. The purpose is to "just talk about women's health, what the law says and what the health care and legal professional opinions are, surrounding what our law currently says,” Rehfeldt said.

Weiland said he is skeptical, not knowing what the video would include.

“Hopefully it's enough guidance for doctors to be able to make these medical decisions,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Jack Dura, The Associated Press