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Abortion ban looms large on S.D. ballot


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IRENE, S.D. -- Georgia Kaufman is against abortion. She's torn, though, about the referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot that will decide whether the USA's toughest abortion restrictions will become law or be repealed.

"I personally do not believe in abortion," says Kaufman. "I'm very proud that South Dakota is the first state to step forward and say 'no.'"

Still, she thinks it's wrong to make abortion illegal for women who have been raped or are victims of incest. The law would allow an abortion only if a woman's life is at risk. "I'm wrestling with that tremendously," says Kaufman, 37, a waitress at the Irene Bar & Grill.

How Kaufman votes and the outcome of the referendum will reverberate outside conservative South Dakota. If voters uphold the law, which also would make it a felony for doctors to perform abortions unless the woman's life is in jeopardy, Planned Parenthood plans a lawsuit asserting the ban is unconstitutional. Supporters of the ban would use the case to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

California and Oregon have ballot measures that would require parental consent for minors to have abortions, and voters here will vote on gay marriage and allowing medical use of marijuana. The abortion ban, though, has generated the most debate and passion.

Republican Gov. Mike Rounds signed the law in March. Opponents gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The latest statewide poll in July showed 47% of voters opposed the ban and 39% supported it; 14% were undecided. Both sides expect a close vote.

The latest round of ads has each side calling the other liars. The lead group supporting the law, Vote Yes for Life, is running TV and radio ads and mailing postcards that say it gives women "the option of terminating pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest."

The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, which organized the repeal vote, says the law would allow rape and incest victims to use emergency contraception before a pregnancy could be detected, since they would not be able to have legal abortions.

Getting out the vote

At the Pump 'N' Stuff gas station and coffee shop in this town of 400, a half-dozen men crowd around the only table and explain their mixed feelings.

"I heard that if a woman gets cancer, she can't take chemo" under the law because it might harm the fetus, says Dale Korslund 68. "It should be a private deal, not a state or federal thing." Daryl Erickson, 50, isn't sure how he'll vote. "If the gal's raped, then (abortion) should be done," he says. "If not, no." Bill Ryken, 74, says the debate "gets to you after awhile."

National groups that support abortion rights have sent staffers to South Dakota. At the commons at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, Kelsey Collier-Wise, 25, a law school student, was registering voters with help from Jessie Raeder of Los Angeles, who works for the Feminist Majority Foundation. Monday was the final day to register to vote in November's election. The table had stickers and flyers saying the ban "threatens women's lives." Collier-Wise says they have registered "hundreds of students" since August.

Sophomore Gina Cooper, 19, registered and left no doubt about her vote: "I believe firmly from past experiences with friends that abortion needs to be an option for women."

Ruth Herman is just as emphatic. She spends a couple hours every day helping at the headquarters of Vote Yes for Life in Sioux Falls. Herman, 56, who lives in Hartford, had an unplanned pregnancy 38 years ago and the baby was adopted. She's grateful abortion wasn't an option, because if she had one, "I would have regretted that the rest of my life. I see no reason for an abortion unless of course the mother's life is in danger, and this law will cover that."

Both sides continue campaigns

Leslee Unruh, campaign manager of Vote Yes for Life, believes her side "has the momentum." Women who have had abortions and regret it are calling voters. Aqua-and-white yard signs reading "Vote Yes for Life" are ubiquitous even on country roads.

Most of the group's donations are from South Dakotans, she says, and she's not getting much help from national groups. Abortion opponents are "no longer looking at national leadership," she says. "They're thinking they can do it themselves in their own state."

Jan Nicolay, a former state legislator who runs South Dakotans for Healthy Families, says the group has sought donations from national abortion rights groups and their supporters. On Election Day, Planned Parenthood will test a text-messaging system that will send results to supporters across the nation.

Neither Nicolay nor Unruh will say how much they have raised or spent; campaign-finance reports are due next week. Nicolay expects a close vote. "We said from the beginning this would be challenging," she says. "It's very emotional, it's very personal."

Outside South Dakota's only abortion clinic, on the west side of Sioux Falls, protesters carry signs with photos of a dismembered fetus and take photos of everyone who enters the Planned Parenthood facility. The pictures will be posted later on a website.

Inside, about a dozen women sit in the waiting room. The clinic performs about 800 abortions a year, says Kate Looby, Planned Parenthood's state director. "While this election may have national implications," she says, "right now all that matters is that we maintain access to safe and legal abortion for the women of South Dakota."

Back in Irene, Kaufman knows the stakes are high: "I can see both sides. My decision could still go either way."

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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