Balloting sought on abortion ban

37,000 signatures submitted in effort to overturn South Dakota law


Abortion rights advocates submitted more than 37,000 signatures yesterday supporting a ballot initiative to overturn South Dakota's ban on abortions.

If the secretary of state verifies the signatures, which number more than twice the amount needed to place a measure on the ballot, South Dakota residents will decide in November whether to keep the strictest ban in the nation.

The measure, which outlaws abortions even in cases of rape or incest, unless the mother's life is at stake, is to take effect July 1. Doctors who perform abortions could be fined $5,000 and imprisoned for five years.

The law, signed by Gov. Michael Rounds in March, was intended to trigger a legal challenge that would end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. President Bush's two appointees to the court are thought by some abortion foes to be ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established the right to an abortion.

Abortion-rights supporters pursued a ballot initiative, arguing that voters - even in a conservative state such as South Dakota - are not ready to completely outlaw abortion.

They said yesterday's submission of the signatures was a sign that they are correct.

"It proved to be extremely easy for us to gather these petitions," said Sarah Stoesz, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and North and South Dakota, part of the coalition backing the ballot initiative. "It underscores that the governor, the legislature and the anti-choice movement have overreached."

Jan Nicolay, co-chairwoman of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, said it would be the nation's first statewide vote on abortion since Roe v. Wade.

Opponents of the ban decided to pursue a popular vote instead of filing a lawsuit. "We would prefer this be dealt with by the people of the state of South Dakota and not spend a lot of money fighting a legal battle," Nicolay said.

Foes of the initiative accused abortion rights forces of misrepresenting their campaign in order to gather signatures and dismissed yesterday's signature total as insignificant.

"It doesn't mean anything," said Leslee Unruh, president of the South Dakota-based Abstinence Clearinghouse and an anti-abortion advocate who was key in pushing the ban. "Abortion's going to be outlawed in the state of South Dakota."

Stoesz denied that the volunteer signature gatherers had misrepresented the initiative.

All sides expect a bruising battle in South Dakota over reproductive rights. National groups on both sides of the debate are expected to pour money into the state.

"It's going to be a long, hot summer," Unruh said.

Nicholas Riccardi writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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