PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A campaign seeking to restore abortion rights in South Dakota by amending the state constitution through a proposed ballot measure in 2024 now has formal opposition.
The South Dakota Secretary of State office recently received notice that the Life Defense Fund had been organized as a ballot-question committee that “opposes measures to legalize abortion in South Dakota.”
The committee’s August 16 filing lists state Representative Jon Hansen, a Dell Rapids Republican, as chairman, Leslee Unruh of Sioux Falls as co-chair and Steven Perkins of Sioux Falls as treasurer.
Hansen, a lawyer who’s currently the No. 2-presiding officer in the state House, strongly opposes abortion rights and is vice president for South Dakota Right to Life.
The opposition committee formed days after state Attorney General Mark Vargo opened the public-comment period on a proposed ballot measure that would ask South Dakota voters to add abortion rights to the state constitution.
KELOLAND News has tried to reach Hansen for comment. He recently used one of the eight pages in the Right to Life statewide newsletter to explain the committee’s purpose.
“Through the Life Defense Fund, we will oppose this deadly constitutional amendment at every step. Beginning this November, we must stand next to their petition circulators, explain to the public how radical this amendment is, and encourage our fellow citizens not to sign the petition,” Hansen wrote.
He continued, “We must tell the truth to people rather than leave them to sort through the lies of the liberal press and misleading ad campaigns for themselves. We must hold the pro-abortion groups accountable and sue them when they break our campaign finance and petition circulation laws. We must match their campaign with such a massive effort that these liberal groups will think twice before ever proposing to legalize the killing of these precious lives ever again.”
The South Dakota Legislature in 2005 had passed what’s known as a trigger law that banned nearly all abortions, other than to protect the life of the mother, “on the date that the states are recognized by the United States Supreme Court to have the authority to prohibit abortion at all stages of pregnancy.”
The U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, in the Dobbs decision found that the U.S. Constitution “does not confer a right to abortion. Roe and Casey must be overruled, and the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to the people and their elected representatives” in the states.
The national decision struck down South Dakota’s laws permitting abortion by a physician through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; or by a physician in a hospital through the first 22 weeks of pregnancy; or after 22 weeks in case of a medical emergency.
Rapid City lawyer James Leach meanwhile had submitted to the secretary of state this summer a proposed ballot measure for 2024 that would amend the South Dakota Constitution to protect abortion rights. Leach and others can begin circulating it for signatures in November after the 2022 general election has concluded.
If sufficient valid signatures are gathered — it would need a number equal to at least 10% of the total votes cast for governor this November — then it could appear on the 2024 general ballot. The current minimum for a constitutional amendment in 2022 was 33,922.
The proposed language reads:
“Before the end of the first trimester, the State may not regulate a pregnant woman’s
abortion decision and its effectuation which must be left to the judgment of the
“After the end of the first trimester and until the end of the second trimester, the State
may regulate the pregnant woman’s abortion decision and its effectuation only in
ways that are reasonably related to the physical health of the pregnant woman.
“After the end of the second trimester, the State may regulate or prohibit abortion,
except when abortion is necessary, in the medical judgment of the woman’s
physician, to preserve the life or health of the pregnant woman.”
As a constitutional amendment, the language couldn’t be changed by the Legislature and any alterations would need to return to the voters.
South Dakota voters in 2006 rejected a state law passed by the Legislature that would have outlawed abortion in most instances. Votes against outnumbered votes in favor 185,945 to 148,648.
In 2008, South Dakota voters turned down an initiated measure that would have outlawed most abortions. The margin was similar to two years earlier, with 206,535 voting no and 167560 voting yes.
State law requires that the attorney general deliver a public statement on the final version of each ballot measure submitted to the secretary of state. Attorney General Vargo this summer took public comment on the proposed abortion-rights amendment and then issued a statement on August 24 that said, “This constitutional amendment establishes a framework for the regulation of abortion…Judicial or legislative clarification of the amendment may be necessary.”
Hansen was one of 19 legislators who told Vargo in an email that the amendment if passed would create a right to abortion in the South Dakota Constitution and would knock out various other abortion restrictions that had been passed in recent decades.
“We the undersigned urge you to issue a Final Statement summarizing the impact the Amendment would have if voted into law in 2024. As our state’s top lawyer, it is your duty to explain the text, not simply repeat it,” the lawmakers said in their email to Vargo. “We oppose the Amendment and hope that the Final Statement more accurately reflects the changes to South Dakota law it would require, including its limitations on our ability to legislate on behalf of our constituents.”
The lawmakers were one of about 10 groups and individuals who provided their views to Vargo during the open-comment period.