In February the South Dakota legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill banning all abortion unless the life of the mother is endangered, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Its passage was not a surprise; South Dakota’s legislature had produced a number of antiabortion bills during the previous session, including one bill that criminalized abortions provided to unemancipated youth and “incompetent females.”
But an analysis of the steps leading up to this landmark legislation, including a study commissioned by the legislature to examine the abortion issue, raises serious questions about how fully or fairly the lawmakers considered the medical, social and personal implications of abortion–and could be fuel in the fight by abortion rights activists to challenge South Dakota’s abortion ban.
In March 2005, the legislature voted to create a task force to objectively study the subject of abortion. The man behind the task force, and one of its members, was first-term Republican Representative Roger Hunt. “We wanted to make sure we’d done our homework this time,” said Hunt. “Before, we had a piecemeal approach to gathering information, and we decided it would make a lot more sense to try to get a complete picture of all the medical and scientific information that’s been made available in the last thirty-three years.”
The final product, a seventy-one-page report categorically condemning abortion, was published in mid-January. Hunt introduced the ban on abortion to the legislature just weeks later, and the findings of the task force are cited within the first clause of the bill as the scientific rationale for the prohibition of abortion. According to the dissenting minority of the fifteen-person task force (two of the seventeen appointees did not attend any meetings), the “fact-finding mission” was nothing but an excuse to legislate ideology.
Though it was designated a bipartisan committee, the task force ended up with a voting bloc of nine staunchly antiabortion members–a mix of antiabortion legislators, doctors, a Catholic antiabortion lobbyist and Dr. Alan Unruh, a chiropractor whose wife, Leslee Unruh, is the founder of Abstinence Clearinghouse. From the first meeting onward, the antiabortion majority refused to conduct the investigation with stringent scientific guidelines, as is standard in most research committees. Alan Unruh even protested that such restrictions would exclude research based on ideology. “This was supposed to be a fact-finding mission,” Kate Looby, South Dakota state director of Planned Parenthood recalls, “and it was so contentious you can’t even imagine. The atmosphere in the room at all times was hostile.”
The dissenters–Linda Holcomb, a family therapist; Dr. Maria Bell, the sole gynecologist on the committee; Senator Stanford Adelstein; and Looby–say the final report distorts the information and testimony the task force surveyed. Though the testimony was evenly divided between citizen and expert witnesses in favor of legal abortion and against it, most of the testimony in favor of legal abortion was omitted from the final report or discredited to what Looby considers a libelous degree.