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Abortion ban battle heats up in S. Dakota

Poll shows voters uneasy about law

By Stephanie Simon
Los Angeles Times / November 6, 2006

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YANKTON, S.D. -- The yard signs seem to be everywhere in South Dakota, declaring in pink and blue: "Vote Yes for Life." They dot the lawns of churches and auto-body shops, grocery stores and parochial schools, isolated farmhouses and suburban bungalows.

Leslee Unruh, who's leading the campaign to ban virtually all abortions in South Dakota, says she's distributed 42,000 signs. That's one for every 12 registered voters.

Though she points to the signs as evidence of broad grass-roots support, polls and interviews with voters in several towns reveal a deep uneasiness with the ban, which criminalizes abortions at every stage of pregnancy and in every circumstance, except if necessary to prevent the woman's death.

Women would not be prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy, but anyone who helped could be charged with a felony, punishable by five years in prison.

The South Dakota Legislature passed the ban in the hope that a court challenge might lead to the US Supreme Court overturning its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Abortion- rights activists decided to take the issue to voters.

A poll released Thursday by KELO-TV in Sioux Falls indicated that 50 percent of likely voters oppose the ban and 41 percent support it, with the rest undecided. "It appears to me as though South Dakotans are pretty much where the rest of the country is: We don't like abortion, but we don't think it should be banned completely," said Don Dahlin , a political science professor at the University of South Dakota .

On a blustery night last week, Marie Arneson, 60, stood in her doorway in this isolated town of 12,000, pondering that very issue. Her church supports the ban, said Arneson .

"But there are other things to be considered as well," she added. "We want to know if there are any openings for people who are rape and incest victims."

Abortion-rights supporters mobilized 2,000 volunteers to canvas door to door over the weekend. "We're telling people: You need to stand up and say, 'It's not the government's business to tell women what they should do,' " said Jan Nicolay, a former state legislator working to defeat the ban .

The antiabortion campaign has tried to ease voter concerns about the ban's broad reach by assuring them that all women could still use the morning-after pill . Under South Dakota law, however, pharmacists are not required to dispense the pill and emergency rooms are not required to offer it to victims of sexual assault.