Campaigners to challenge South Dakota abortions ban

By Andrew Buncombe

WASHINGTON - Campaigners are preparing to challenge a landmark decision in South Dakota to ban abortions in almost all circumstances - a move that will force the Supreme Court to again address one of the most divisive issues in the United States.

New legislation signed earlier this week by the state's governor, Mike Rounds, makes abortion illegal in every circumstance except where the life of the woman is threatened.

There are no exceptions, even for cases of rape or incest, though in these circumstances women could receive emergency contraception.

Doctors and medical staff who provide an abortion face up to five years in prison.

Abortion rights campaigners say they will be challenging the legislation which appears to clearly contravene the historic 1973 Roe v Wade ruling by the Supreme Court which provided women with the right to legal abortion.

It is likely that a judge would suspend the new legislation before it comes into affect on July 1, thereby opening the way for the matter to be decided by the Supreme Court.

"We fully intend to challenge this law," said Kate Looby, state director of Planned Parenthood, which operates South Dakota's only abortion clinic. "It's just a question of how."

The legal tussle, which both sides believe will take years to conclude, will take place against the back-drop of an ongoing debate within the US about access to abortion - a debate that is marked by a fierce intensity.

It is also, in part, a debate about tactics: anti-abortion campaigners debated long and hard among themselves before launching this "direct frontal assault" and many thought it would be more effective to continue to chip away at abortion rights.

But the discussion was won by those who believed that the recent appointment of conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court have provided a rare opportunity to overturn Roe v Wade.

Similar legislation is currently being considered by politicians in Mississippi.

Frances Kissling, president of the abortion rights group Catholics for a Free Choice, said it was unlikely the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v Wade, partly because the issue of abortion was such an effective rallying cry for right-wing Republicans.

"To the extent that the court is influenced by politics - which it is - [they would] want to preserve it," she said.

But she said while upholding Roe, court could in its ruling indicate to anti-abortion activists that it would support greater restrictions on abortion.

"The message would be in the language," she said.

Though he put his signature to the South Dakota legislation, Mr Rounds was among those anti-abortion campaigners who believed a different approach might ultimately be more successful.

"Personally I think this court will be more interested in looking at different aspects of Roe v Wade rather than the direct frontal assault, but we'll never know unless someone tries," he said.

Along with gay rights and the death penalty, the issue of abortion remains one of the great dividing lines in the so-called "culture wars" played out in broader US society.

Polls portray a somewhat complicated picture but clearly suggest the decision in South Dakota is out of touch with the view of the majority of Americans.

The most recent survey, commissioned by the New York Times in January, found 38 per cent supported access to abortion, that 39 per cent felt abortion should be available but with stricter restrictions than present while 21 per cent supported making abortion illegal.

Abortion rights activists say the passing of the South Dakota legislation will act as a wake-up call for those who support abortion but have become complacent.

"We see that this is about more than just South Dakota. It's about the country," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "The bottom line in all of it is - elections matter."

Some in South Dakota who oppose abortion objected to the new legislation because it failed to take into account the circumstances of a woman's pregnancy.

"Not allowing an exception for rape, incest and the health of the mother is a radical position," said State Democratic Representative Pat Haley, who is opposed to abortion but voted against the bill.

But some opponents of abortion simply celebrated.

Leslee Unruh, founder of the Alpha Centre which provides counselling to pregnant women, said: "We finally have been heard. We are so excited. We're ordering lobster and having a party. We are thrilled."

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