Anti-abortion groups plan a major push next year in the South Dakota Legislature to ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.
The bill is called a "fetal pain" measure and would be based on a similar bill passed in Nebraska in 2010. Such a bill would declare that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks of development and that it is illegal to perform an abortion after that point.
“We are very seriously looking at having the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act entered in this year,” said Valerie Johnson, the education coordinator for South Dakota Right To Life and the South Dakota delegate to National Right To Life. “Not only would it save babies, but it would also (say) the state has an interest in a developing unborn child.”
It's unclear which lawmakers might come on board with such a bill. Rep. Roger Hunt, R-Sioux Falls, has sponsored many anti-abortion laws in the past. While Hunt said last week that he is working on an anti-abortion bill, he wouldn't yet disclose what it is.
"All I can really tell you at this point in time (is) it's going to be pro-life legislation," Hunt said.
Several other lawmakers said they've been involved in conversations about a fetal pain bill next year, though they're not personally taking the lead.
"I think there's a number of people who want to raise the fetal pain issue," said Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls.
Rep. Hal Wick, R-Sioux Falls, said he had also heard discussions about raising the fetal pain issue.
Such a ban would affect a relatively small percentage of South Dakota abortions. In 2009, the most recent year for which the state has data available, around 92 percent of South Dakota abortions were performed before the 13th week of pregnancy.
The department didn't immediately have data available on the 20th week of pregnancy, though Hickey said there were 12 instances of abortion after the 20th week in the most recent year. That would be about 1.5 percent of the state's annual abortion rate.
Johnson said there's a national push among anti-abortion groups to pass laws banning abortion after 20 weeks, when they say the fetus can feel pain.
Since Nebraska passed its law, Idaho, Oklahoma, Kansas and Indiana have passed similar legislation. The Minnesota legislature also passed a bill, but Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it.
Pro-abortion rights advocates criticized the proposal.
"I think South Dakotans are really, really tired of this issue, tired of this Legislature over and over bringing up bills to make women's access to health care more difficult," said Dr. Marvin Buehner, a Rapid City OB-GYN who performs medical abortions and has been an outspoken defender of abortion rights.
Jennifer Aulwes, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, said she couldn't comment on specific legislation until her organization's attorneys examine it.
"Given these tough economic times, it's a shame that the Legislature would be wasting taxpayer dollars trying to create these kinds of barriers to women's health care," Aulwes said.
But anti-abortion advocates said legislation like this is of paramount importance.
"The life issue is critical," Hunt said. "I recognize that people sometimes would prefer not to think about pro-life issues, but nevertheless, the issue in and of itself is so critical and so important."
Rep. Don Kopp, R-Rapid City, said earlier this month that he believes it might be time for the state to take a break and let its current abortion laws work their way through the courts. But when told about the 20-week ban, Kopp said that sounds important enough that he could support it.
"I think that if you're saving a life, that's probably more important than lawsuits or money," he said.
Supporters of the fetal pain bill say it's based on sound science about when fetuses can feel pain.
"It's indisputable at 20 weeks," Johnson said.
But abortion rights supporters do dispute it.
"Although I can't say I'm an expert on the fetal pain issue, my understanding of the best literature regarding that issue is that whenever the ability to feel pain occurs, it's probably considerably after 20 weeks," Buehner said. "Bills like this are based on really questionable science."
Though her group is still trying to line up a lawmaker to sponsor the legislation, Johnson predicted that a fetal pain bill would pass.
"I get the sense that there is wide support for this bill," she said. "Everyone can relate to pain."
If the South Dakota Legislature does consider a fetal pain bill, it will be another brush with the controversial abortion issue. A 2005 anti-abortion law is currently tied up in a lawsuit, as is a 2011 law. Voters overturned a full ban on abortions at the ballot box in 2006, and rejected another ban with more exceptions two years later.
Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or firstname.lastname@example.org.