South Dakota Abortion Ban Sets Up Supreme Court Challenge

Governor signs bill outlawing nearly all abortions in state.

Abortion foes celebrated a victory Monday (March 6) when South Dakota's governor signed into law one of the most restrictive abortion measures in the country, helping set up a court battle intended to challenge the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

The South Dakota law signed by Governor Mike Rounds makes it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless it is necessary to save the woman's life, with no exception in cases of rape or incest, according to an Associated Press report.

In a sign that the measure was largely ceremonial and passed in an attempt to challenge the Roe decision, Rounds said in a written statement that he expects the law to be tied up in the courts for years and is unlikely to take effect unless the Supreme Court upholds it.

"In the history of the world, the true test of a civilization is how well people treat the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society," Rounds said in the statement. "The sponsors and supporters of this bill believe that abortion is wrong because unborn children are the most vulnerable and most helpless persons in our society. I agree with them.

"Because this new law is a direct challenge to the Roe versus Wade interpretation of the Constitution, I expect this law will be taken to court and prevented from going into effect this July," Rounds continued. "That challenge will likely take years to be settled and it may ultimately be decided by the United States Supreme Court. Our existing laws regulating abortions will remain in effect."

The ban is slated to take effect July 1, but a federal judge is likely to suspend the ban during the legal challenge, which means it will not likely take effect unless the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court and wins.

"The reversal of a Supreme Court opinion is possible," Rounds' statement said, citing the reversal of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which had cleared the way for racial segregation in public places. That decision was overturned in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, which found that "separate" could not be "equal." He said South Dakota's new law will give the Supreme Court "a similar opportunity to reconsider an earlier opinion."

Planned Parenthood, which operates South Dakota's only abortion clinic, in Sioux Falls, has pledged it will challenge the measure in court, the AP reported. About 800 abortions are done each year in South Dakota.

Rounds said abortion opponents have already offered money to help the state with legal bills in the anticipated court challenge, including an anonymous donor who pledged $1 million to defend the ban, according to the AP.

Under the new law, doctors could get up to five years in prison for performing an abortion. It also has language that says the state legislature found that scientific advances since Roe was decided in 1973 have demonstrated that life begins at conception, a crucial point in challenging Roe.

Supporters of the measure, which had some bipartisan support in the legislature, believe that the recent appointments of Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito (see "John Roberts Confirmed As Nation's 17th Supreme Court Chief Justice" and "Alito Confirmed For Supreme Court") helps their cause and that President Bush may have a chance to appoint a third justice before his second term is over. If Bush is able to appoint a third justice before the legal battle over the South Dakota law reaches the Supreme Court, state lawmakers believe the court might then be more likely to overturn Roe (see "Future Of Roe V. Wade In Question On Landmark Abortion Ruling's 33rd Anniversary").