South Dakota Legislature passes abortion-law modification

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 3:15 a.m. MDT

PIERRE, S.D. — Even though South Dakota's year-old abortion law is tied up in a court challenge, the state Senate on Thursday gave final legislative approval to a bill that would change some of the law's counseling requirements for women seeking abortions.

The bill leaves intact the current law's requirements that women seeking abortions wait 72 hours and undergo counseling at pregnancy help centers that discourage abortions. But it changes provisions dealing with a woman's first consultation with a doctor at an abortion clinic and requires that counselors at the pregnancy help centers be licensed.

The Senate voted 26-7 to pass the bill, which has also been approved by the House. It next goes to Gov. Dennis Daugaard for his signature.

Supporters of the law passed last year contend the counseling sessions at pregnancy help centers would prevent women from being pressured into getting abortions they don't want. Opponents argue that the counseling sessions would be used to pressure women out of having abortions they want.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley has said the bill has the potential to help the state defend the law in federal court because it deals with some issues raised by the federal judge handling the lawsuit challenging the law passed last year.

Planned Parenthood, which operates South Dakota's only abortion clinic in Sioux Falls, filed a lawsuit that contends the law is an unconstitutional burden on a woman's right to an abortion. U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier has suspended most provisions from taking effect until the court challenge is decided.

In Thursday's debate, Sen. Elizabeth Kraus, R-Rapid City, said the bill clarifies the Legislature's intent in passing last year's law. The Legislature frequently passes such cleanup measures a year or so after passing an original bill, she said.

"I ask your support for this legislation that would clear up any ambiguities for the abortion doctors and provide protection for the women considering abortions in South Dakota," Kraus told the Senate.

Opponents said last year's law and this year's bill assume that a woman is not capable of making up her own mind about whether to get an abortion or get counseling before an abortion.

Sen. Eldon Nygaard, R-Vermillion, said the new requirements would even require a doctor at an abortion clinic to talk to a woman about her religious beliefs.

"This bill, if we pass it, would provide unnecessary government intrusions into private decisions," Nygaard said.

The bill would require that the counseling sessions at pregnancy help centers be conducted by counselors, doctors, nurses and others who are licensed in their fields. It also would specify what factors an abortion clinic doctor would consider when determining whether a woman is at risk of developing mental health problems if she had an abortion.

The law last year required a doctor at an abortion clinic to discuss with a woman any factors that medical journals have identified that could cause a woman to have psychological problems after getting an abortion. The bill requires doctors to consider specific risk factors, such as coercion, a woman's age, her previous mental health problems and her religious views.

Before passing the bill Thursday, senators defeated proposed amendments that would have made counseling at pregnancy help centers optional and would have allowed abortion clinic doctors to conduct initial interviews with women by telephone. Opponents of the law argue that requiring the doctor to meet women face-to-face in the initial interviews could mean women have to make two or three trips to Sioux Falls to get abortions.

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