Battle over abortion rights in South Dakota constitution intensifies

<span>The capitol building in Pierre, South Dakota, on 9 August 2017.</span><span>Photograph: Chris Boswell/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
The capitol building in Pierre, South Dakota, on 9 August 2017.Photograph: Chris Boswell/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Anti-abortion activists in South Dakota have sued over a ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, leading the group behind the measure to ask a federal judge to step in and block the activists’ effort.

Last week, South Dakota’s Life Defense Fund filed a lawsuit accusing Dakotans for Health of fraud, turning in invalid signatures and failing to abide by the state rules that govern signature-gathering for ballot measures. Life Defense Fund has asked a South Dakota circuit court to take the abortion-rights measure off the November ballot.

In response, Dakotans for Health on Tuesday filed a motion in federal court arguing that Life Defense Fund’s argument is faulty, because it relies on a law that has been blocked by a separate court order.

Life Defense Fund “are wrong on the facts and wrong on the law,” Rick Weiland, co-founder of Dakotans for Health, said in a statement. “They aren’t even aware that the law they are trying to use to claim our petition should be invalidated was itself invalidated over a year and half ago and no longer exists.”

“We’re reviewing the complaint, and we will continue to fight to protect mothers and babies from the atrocities of abortion in our state,” Jon Hansen, co-chair of Life Defense Fund and a Republican South Dakota state legislator, said in a statement.

Currently, South Dakota bans abortion except in cases of medical emergencies. The ballot measure would restore the right to abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, as well as require that “regulation of a pregnant woman’s abortion decision, or of an abortion, during the second trimester must be reasonably related to the physical health of the pregnant woman”.

South Dakota would still be allowed to ban abortion in the third trimester of pregnancy, unless a doctor decides that an abortion is necessary to protect a patient’s life or health.

Dakotans for Health turned in more than 50,000 signatures in support of putting the measure on the ballot.

The lawsuit is only the latest effort to stop the state’s ballot measure from moving forward. In March, the South Dakota governor, Kristi Noem, signed into law a bill that would allow people to remove their signatures from ballot measure petitions, a move widely seen as an attack on the abortion-rights measure, which had not yet qualified for the ballot. Then, in May, the South Dakota secretary of state, Monae L Johnson, released a statement warning voters about “scammers” calling people and, while pretending to be officials from Johnson’s office, urging them to take their names off petitions supporting the abortion-rights ballot measure.

South Dakota is one of at least three states where residents will be able to vote directly on whether to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. Similar ballot measures are still pending in several other states, including electoral battlegrounds like Arizona and Nevada.