SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — One year ago the phone of South Dakota Right to Life executive Dale Bartscher started to ring in the middle of a Sioux Falls Area Right to Life chapter meeting. The message on his screen would change the course of abortion in South Dakota.
Politico had reported that a draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision had leaked and that the Supreme Court of the United States was poised to overturn Americans right to abortion care within weeks.
“We celebrated together, the leak, and knew full well that we would have to wait to see what was going to happen next, but it was definitely a good sign,” Bartscher recalled one year later.
That same news alert appeared on the phone of the ACLU of South Dakota’s advocacy manager Samantha Chapman, but her response was the exact opposite of Bartscher’s.
“I just felt this overwhelming looming fear and dread,” Chapman remembers. “I guess I take people at their word. I believed that, yep, that’s what the ruling is going to look like, and we need to prepare for what the landscape will be post-Roe.”
The immediate reaction to the leaked draft was one of action in both South Dakota and across the country. Chapman said that at the time pro-abortion rights advocates were organizing funds for people in South Dakota to travel to find abortion care elsewhere.
“Both directly before and directly after the Dobbs hearing there was a lot of chaos and there was a lot of energy from people who might seek abortion care or supporters of abortion care, wanting to make sure that their voices were heard in opposition to that ruling,” Chapman said.
Amidst that chaos, Governor Kristi Noem issued a statement that she would call for a special session as soon as the official decision came down from the court. Nearly two months later when that ruling came down, Noem called for that special session amidst her celebration of the decision.
“We must do what we can to help mothers in crisis know that there are options and resources available for them. Together, we will ensure that abortion is not only illegal in South Dakota – it is unthinkable,” Noem said at the time.
That special session never happened.
In the weeks following the leak, a lawsuit involving the state of South Dakota and Planned Parenthood regarding telemedicine abortion was placed on hold pending the SCOTUS decision. Then, a few weeks later, Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls suspended abortion services in anticipation of the decision effectively marking the end of legal abortion in the state.
That period between the leak and the official ruling was tense and confusing and it hasn’t become clearer in the year since, according to Chapman.
“I’m hearing that there’s already a chilling effect. Physicians aren’t sure what kind of care is appropriate and for how long. Patients with more complicated pregnancies are being sent out of state to seek OB-GYN care, and we’re hearing a lot from physicians just that they don’t they don’t know what the line is,” Chapman explained.
For South Dakota Right to Life, the last year has only intensified their movement.
“It is far from thinking we won, and we’re done,” Bartscher said. “To be clear nothing in the language history or interpretation of the South Dakota constitution supports a right to an abortion, but rather we are a state that values a culture of life.”
In the months after the decision, lawmakers and advocates on both sides were gearing up for a legislative fight in Pierre in 2023 with most legislative candidates in support of clarifying South Dakota’s trigger law, either to further restrict or broaden it.
But the legislative session brought little attention to the landmark ruling outside of a resolution to affirm the legislatures support of the decision, a bill to clarify that a person seeking an abortion is not criminally liable, and a bill to revise statute relating to the expenses of both parents throughout pregnancy and childbirth.
“We are renewing our commitment to work with legislators in the governor’s office to pass laws that protect the unborn support women and families who are experiencing unplanned pregnancies and promote the respect of the dignity of human life at all stages of life,” Bartscher said.
Normally a loud voice in the legislature, South Dakota Right to Life’s presence this legislative session was much quieter though still impactful.
HB 1169 brought forward by Sioux Falls Republican Representative Taylor Rehfeldt sought to clarify the “life of the mother” language in the state’s trigger ban, but it was never debated by lawmakers. During a February 7 hearing, in which South Dakota Right to Life lobbyists were present, the lawmaker tearfully tabled her bill citing backlash stemming from the bill’s language.
“I would have never thought that the idea of preserving the life of the mother would be debatable, or even considered not pro-life by some who would think that being pro-life could mean that we do not protect women, that we are not willing to provide clarification for doctors who have given their lives to care for not just one, but two patients,” Rehfeldt said.
Chapman recalls that committee hearing and said that the lack of clarity surrounding the current ban has caused confusion that persists even a year later.
“It really makes us wonder, you know, if Right to Life is so opposed to any kind of clarification, how much right do I have to my life?” Chapman said.
South Dakota Right to Life declined to make a comment to KELOLAND News following the hearing.
What’s next for abortion in South Dakota?
A year after the leak, organizers in the state are attempting to place the fate of abortion in the voters’ hands once again.
Dakotans for Health is currently gathering signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot to restore access to abortion in South Dakota. Their organizing efforts are being pushed back against by the Life Defense Fund, separate from South Dakota Right to Life, who are hoping to discourage people from signing the petition.
“When petition circulators approach South Dakotans, and they will with their extreme and deceptively worded abortion petition, we’re simply saying please decline to sign,” Bartscher said of the efforts.
In 2006 and 2008 South Dakota voters declined to enact abortion bans and organizers are hoping the votes will be there again in 2024.
South Dakota Right to Life is already looking ahead to the 2024 legislative session and any anti-abortion legislation that might need their support.
“South Dakota Right to Life remains optimistic as a vast majority of our state’s elected officials overwhelmingly support and champion the sanctity of human life,” Bartscher said.
For now, South Dakotans must rely on neighboring states for access to abortion care. Minnesota recently signed into law protections for those seeking abortions as well as Minnesota doctors providing care to out-of-state patients.
“The clinics that are on the border of Minnesota and other states that are nearby South Dakota, are quickly seeing themselves overwhelmed with abortion patients, not just from their own states, but from states like ours and other states with trigger bans,” Chapman said.
South Dakota’s trigger ban remains the law of the land as it was written in 2005.