In two back-to-back elections a decade-and-a-half ago, the state's voters delivered sizable defeats to abortion bans, upending expectations about reproductive politics in a red state.
But with new restrictions staring at them in the near term, Rep. Jennifer Keintz, an Eden Democrat, hopes voters could once again muster majority support to turn an extension of the state's far-reaching abortion restrictions.
"I don't think our demographics have changed enough that it would be different this time around," said Keintz, speaking last week with Forum News Service.
Buoyed by a Texas law that allows private citizens to sue abortion doctors performing procedures after six weeks from a woman's last menstrual cycle, social conservatives who wish to see abortion access further restricted in South Dakota are looking favorably to next January when lawmakers meet for the 2022 session in Pierre.
Following news the U.S. Supreme Court would not — at least for now — enjoin the controversial Texas law, Gov. Kristi Noem announced she'd tasked her administration's so-called "Unborn Child Advocate" to review the Texas law for possible application in South Dakota.
While the 2021 legislative session marked a ban on aborting fetuses suspected of impact from Down's syndrome and another law requiring life-saving care for the incredibly rare instance of a botched late-term abortion, anti-abortion politicians say they're not yet ready to reveal what bills they'll bring next year.
"Looking at some of the recent actions, we really support any action to defend life in the womb and really encourage a strong pro-life culture in South Dakota," said Christopher Motz, executive director with the South Dakota Catholic Conference. Motz added his group looks forward to a day when abortion is both "illegal and unthinkable."
The past year marked an anomaly in abortion in the state. During the pandemic, Planned Parenthood kept its clinic open but ceased sending a physician to the western Sioux Falls health care center to perform abortions for seven months. The numbers of abortions reported to the South Dakota Department of Health in the state — routinely over 400 — plummeted to only 125. As recently as 2008, there were 848 abortions in the state.
As has been reported by South Dakota News Watch, many South Dakota women sought abortions across state lines, traveling to Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, or North Dakota.
It's unclear how else lawmakers can ratchet down abortion restrictions — already some of the most expansive in the nation — outside of a Texas-style ban at six weeks.
"One thing I've noticed is that when people need assistance, they need all the assistance," said Kim Floren of Sioux Falls. Floren runs JEN (Justice Empowerment Network), a local, direct aide organization that rose from the shuttering of the local chapter of NARAL, an abortion rights group.
Floren's group provides money to persons seeking abortions, and criticized Noem's executive order.
"It's not like, 'I'm short $100,'" said Floren, describing the pregnant women her group works with. "It's like, 'I need to come up with $600, and I also need a tank of gas, and I also need someone to watch my kid.' Their situation is more desperate."
South Dakota possesses a trigger-law, meaning if the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, abortion would effectively become banned in the state. Persons needing an abortion could still travel to nearby states where abortion would likely remain legal, such as in Minnesota or Colorado. But advocates don't want to see that reality.
Finding the political will in a Republican-dominated Statehouse could be tough.
This past legislative session, every member voted in support of the Down syndrome abortion ban that, like the tele-medicine abortion executive order, fixes a problem not present in the state, as accurate results for medical tests for the intellectual disability aren't accessible until after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
While state law allows for abortions up to the 22nd gestational week, the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls only provides abortions up to the 14th week.
Keintz said 2021 marked her first year in the Legislature and that after learning the consent calendar process — and how to pull out individual bills for debate — she would've voted differently on the Down syndrome ban.
"I'm learning that in a state like ours," said Keintz, "if you want something, you need to speak up."