Restricting Choice

South Dakota Law Makes Women’s Access To Reproductive Care Increasingly Difficult


Alisha Sedor is deeply worried about the impact of a new South Dakota law on women’s health care and reproductive choice.

“There is no physician that lives in South Dakota that will perform elective abortion procedures,” said Sedor, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota. “The doctors all come in from out of state just one day a week. And if you live in the western part of the state, you have to drive five to six hours to get to the only abortion center in the state. This law just makes it even more inaccessible.”

In March, Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a measure that requires women to consult with a “crisis pregnancy center” (CPC) and wait at least 72 hours before going forward with a pregnancy termination.

According to Sedor and other reproductive justice and civil liberties groups, the law is the equivalent of an all-out state abortion ban. Already, access to the procedure was extremely limited within the state, she said.

That was the likely intent of those pushing the legislation. The bill’s primary sponsor was Rep. Roger Hunt (R-Brandon), a man who had jammed through two state abortion bans in 2006 and 2008. Though the legislature passed these measures, they failed miserably when put to a public vote.

Despite knowing that South Dakotans don’t want draconian limits on abortion, Hunt introduced H.B. 1217 anyway. Backed by national and local Religious Right groups such as Concerned Women for America, the Family Heritage Alliance and the South Dakota Family Policy Council (a Focus on the Family affiliate) – as well as the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls – Hunt succeeded in steamrolling the probably unconstitutional measure into law.

The legislator also received the unfettered support of South Dakota CPCs, unregulated organizations that are religiously based and rabidly anti-choice. Yet, beginning in July, they will have access to every woman seeking an abortion in South Dakota.

“These centers can say whatever they want,” said Sedor. “They have no requirements not to lie to women, and they do not have to ensure a woman’s confidentiality is kept. Many are religiously based and try to impose their religious views on these women.”

The South Dakota anti-choice measure is just one of hundreds being pushed by Religious Right organizations and their sectarian allies across the country. Thanks to their lobbying efforts, not only has the new Congress sought to defund Planned Parenthood and push ineffective abstinence-only measures, state legislators have also waged war on women’s reproductive rights.

In Ohio, the “heartbeat bill” was introduced in the House of Representatives with 50 co-sponsors – more than half the chamber. The measure, if passed, would ensure that once a fetal heartbeat is detected, a woman cannot have an abortion, with the exception of medical emergencies.

The Ohio House Health Committee, prior to voting, heard “expert testimony” from a nine-week-old fetus in the womb through an ultrasound projector. Supporters of the bill included a range of Religious Right groups, including TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, Family First PAC, Citizens for Community Values and the National Right to Life Committee.

In Florida, the House approved a package of anti-choice legislation that includes a measure requiring women to pay for an ultrasound before receiving an abortion, a ban on the use of public funds for elective abortions and a provision that would ensure fees received from the sale of the “Choose Life” license plates go to the Choose Life Foundation, which runs CPCs throughout the state.

Several states have also introduced measures that define personhood as beginning at conception, which South Dakota and Missouri already have on the books. States that have considered these measures this session include Iowa, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas.

But the South Dakota law, the only anti-choice measure to pass so far this year, stands out – particularly because of the government’s mandate that women seek counseling before making what should be a personal choice. What’s worse, the counsel they are required to receive may very well be cloaked in fundamentalist religious dogma.

CPCs are well-known to be staffed by volunteers with no medical training who feed women false information about abortion risks. The largest CPC in South Dakota, the Alpha Center, claims that abortion increases risks for breast cancer, infertility and depression – none of which are grounded in medicine.

The Alpha Center is run by Leslee Unruh and her husband, Allen Unruh, a chiropractor and leader of the Tea Party movement. They opened the Alpha Center for Women together in 1984.

Unruh, who serves as president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, is now a mother of five children (three from a previous marriage). Despite her fervent opposition to abortion, she once had an abortion herself. She contends her doctor gave her misinformation by claiming the pregnancy could endanger her health.

According to More magazine, Unruh had the abortion while her husband was on the road delivering anti-abortion speeches with John C. Wilke, founder the National Right to Life Committee.

On a DVD produced for Unruh’s Vote Yes for Life campaign, her husband said, “God was calling her to use the worst thing that ever happened in her life for good. God can take you from where you were and use you.”

Since then, Unruh has made this her life’s work, and at one point, even offered money to girls if they would carry their unwanted pregnancies to term. She would then put their babies up for adoption. Once exposed, Unruh was criminally charged with five counts of unlicensed adoption and foster-care practices.

The Unruhs’ Alpha Center is located near the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls. It advertises abortion services in the phone book, deceiving woman who are searching for abortion providers.

In the past, the Unruhs have been very vocal about their religious beliefs and the influence of faith on the center. In a newsletter to supporters in 2010, the Unruhs claimed “the government is changing the rules by enacting more anti-Christian legislation.”

They reminded their followers, “Only what’s done for Christ will last; and that is our goal at the Alpha Center every day.”

That statement was also once part of the center’s declared mission. Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, told The Daily Beast that CPCs like the Alpha Center have told women that “Jesus would never forgive them if they had an abortion.”

Though the Alpha Center has recently cleared its website of all religious language (the new law states that CPCs cannot proselytize women without their consent), it’s impossible to know what really goes on at these unregulated centers.

In a column for The Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, writes, “Such consent may be easily extracted from someone who is already desperate and vulnerable. Dr. Unruh insists Alpha Center counselors won’t preach to anyone against her will, but he can barely restrain himself from preaching to me.”

The Alpha Center, however, is not much different than the many other CPCs across the country that also engage in misleading practices. While only South Dakota mandates that women seek counseling from these centers, in some states, CPCs receive public funding.

In 2006, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) released a study revealing that 87 percent of these centers, including those receiving federal funding, provided false information to teenagers about the health effects of abortion.

And other centers have been known to proselytize. In Texas, for example, taxpayer funding has gone to support CPCs that are not permitted to promote religion while taking government largess. A Texas Independent investigative report showed the Austin LifeCare (ALC), a center in Travis County, was not abiding by that rule.

According to the news agency’s report, the center failed to label and separate spiritual materials from education materials. A reporter who attended an informational training session for volunteers was inundated with overt religious references.

During one of those training sessions, a volunteer asked what she was supposed to tell a woman who said she wanted an abortion. The trainer told her, ‘That is against what we are about here…. Prenatal care is very big for us…. If they decide to make that choice…tell them to trust God; he’s got a bigger plan.”

The Independent also reported, “While ‘God’ was mentioned to the point of excess in the ALC training session, Christian specific references were included also. Leaders told volunteers to ‘handle people as Christ would,’ and show clients they could be ‘set free’ from the ‘shame of abortion’ through the ‘healing of Jesus Christ.’”

Despite an obvious infringement on women’s constitutional rights, South Dakota’s Hunt and his supporters claim his measure serves to “protect women from coerced abortion” and allows them to make an “informed decision.”

Yet when the bill was before the House Judiciary Committee, Hunt, who serves as the panel’s chairman, refused to allow committee members to hear testimony that would allow them to make an informed decision on the bill. Ten people testified in support of the measure, but he only allowed four to testify against it.

One of those denied a chance to testify was Dr. Marvin Buehner. Buehner, an obstetrician/gynecologist practicing in Rapid City, S.D., later wrote an opinion piece for the Rapid City Journal, noting what he would have said if he had been given the opportunity.

He discussed a patient who could have died from health complications if she carried pregnancy to full term. After “extensive discussion and many tears,” his patient decided to have the procedure, he said.

“Before [she] could have an abortion to protect her health and life, she and I completed more than 25 pages of state-mandated forms that required me to give her information that is patently false,” he wrote. “Failure to complete them precisely can result in investigation, fines and civil or criminal liability.

“Under this new bill,” he wrote, “[She] would have been forced to submit to a ‘consultation’ with a state-approved ‘pregnancy help center,’ whose central mission is to persuade her to carry her pregnancy to term. Because the information dispensed by these centers is not regulated, she may have been forced to hear that the risk of abortion is greater than carrying to term, that she will get breast cancer, or that she is selfish and immoral – all cruel and false assertions that are common among these centers. She would have to wait three more days.”

Noting that the South Dakota State Medical Association opposed the bill, he concluded, “Though the bill’s stated purpose is to prevent coercion of women with unplanned pregnancies, it instead mandates government-sponsored coercion of these women by anti-abortion clinics.”

The South Dakota law will not go into effect until July. In the meantime, civil liberties and reproductive justice organizations have announced that they plan to file a lawsuit to stop the measure from going into effect.

“Our job now is to really let the public know about how this is going to affect women in the state,” said Sedor. “If a woman doesn’t want to involve a third party in a very personal decision, the state shouldn’t require her to. It’s such an egregious intrusion.”