Turning back the clock on abortion

A Times Editorial
Published March 10, 2006

Come July, South Dakota will return to 1972. Abortion, even in the first trimester, will be illegal unless a woman's life is endangered by the pregnancy. Other states might be emboldened to follow South Dakota's lead, and the abortion wars will escalate again.

The new law, signed Monday by the state's governor, Michael Rounds, is a test. The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishing a woman's right to choose an abortion, Roe vs. Wade, commands the support of a majority of Americans who favor keeping abortion legal but with some reasonable restrictions. It is highly likely that any federal court that hears a challenge to the South Dakota statute will set the law aside as unconstitutional.

The open strategy of the antiabortion movement in the state is to get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court with the hope that the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. will change the outcome of our nation's 30-year abortion jurisprudence.

Court watchers question this approach when, even if both Roberts and Alito supported the overturning of Roe, which isn't at all certain, the court retains the five votes needed to reaffirm its basic holding. Still, the action by South Dakota suggests that without Sandra Day O'Connor on the court, a woman's right to obtain an abortion is more open to assault than at any time since it was established.

The South Dakota law would turn doctors who help women safely end their unwanted pregnancies into felons subject to serious criminal penalties. The law would make no exception if the pregnancy were dangerous to the mother's health or if she were impregnated by a rapist or her father.

Get pregnant by whatever means and nine months of subjugation - no matter the physical, emotional, financial or psychological cost - is the sentence. Have a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion and invite a criminal inquest.

When the Supreme Court made abortion legal, it gave women the power to control their reproductive choices. South Dakota, and the states that will try to follow its example, would turn back the clock, relegating women to little more than a vessel for their growing fetus. It is a nightmare scenario that comes with the risks of back alleys, desperate measures and dashed dreams.