Last November, South Dakota’s pro-life community was a united force.  Conditions had changed significantly by the end of February, when the effort to ban almost all abortions in the state suffered its second major defeat in less than four months, this time through the votes of eight state senators who killed a bill in committee that would have banned virtually all abortions, except those involving pregnancies conceived in rape or incest, or in cases in which carrying a child to term could seriously harm or kill the mother.

This time, members of the state’s pro-life community were among those who helped to scuttle the bill.

The issue first came to a head during the 2006 legislative session, when South Dakota lawmakers passed a bill banning abortions, and Gov. Mike Rounds signed it into law.  Abortion-rights groups responded by collecting enough signatures to force the issue onto the ballot that November.  Polls correctly foretold the ban’s demise.  They also gave some pro-life advocates cause for hope: Fifty-six percent who opposed the ban said they would support a measure that included exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.

Thus, few doubted that pro-life lawmakers would try again when the state legislature convened in January.  As the deadline neared for filing bills, copies of e-mails circulated through the capitol.  Many were written by local religious leaders, urging lawmakers to push forward with a new bill, even if, because of the exceptions, such a bill could not be considered perfect.  One e-mail, attributed to Bishop Paul Swain of the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, argued that there is, in Catholic moral theology, a principle of gradualism that would permit a Catholic in good conscience to support and vote for a lesser ban with the intention of diminishing as much evil, and protecting as many lives, as possible.

The bill that emerged was complex.  It required a rape victim to report the crime within 50 days.  An abortion could not be performed later than 17 weeks after a victim’s last menstrual period.  The same requirement applied to incest victims.

Several key supporters of the 2006 ban were not on board.  Some were upset by the exceptions.  Had it been signed into law, the bill would almost certainly have eliminated the vast majority of the 800 abortions performed each year.  But some found the idea of establishing a two-tier system on the value of life to be morally repugnant, even if it was politically expedient.

A far more common complaint had to do with timing.  Those who support abortion argued that a thick cloud of abortion fatigue had settled over the state, so, they asked, why bring it up again?  It was an argument that even some chiefs in the pro-life community made.  Brock Greenfield, a state senator who heads South Dakota Right to Life, testified against the bill.  He was joined at the podium that day by the state director of Planned Parenthood.

Backers attempted to counter the timing issue by amending the bill, adding a provision to refer it to voters in the 2008 general election.  The move served two purposes: First, for those who said the debate should wait, it pushed the argument into the future.  Second, if voters were to approve the measure in 2008, it would force pro-abortion groups into the position of having to mount a judicial challenge against a provision supported by the majority of voters.

After passing 45-25 in the South Dakota House of Representatives, the bill was killed by the Senate State Affairs Committee on an 8-1 vote.

When the first ban rolled through the legislature in 2006, pro-lifers hoped it would tear down Roe v. Wade.  They were energized as they went to work defending the measure.  Millions of dollars poured into their campaign.  Many were hopeful that another vacancy would occur on the U.S. Supreme Court.  But the referendum of November 2006 was a kick in the teeth.  To make matters worse, after the November election, a few of the key legislative leaders who supported the ban lost their seats.  At the national level, dreams of another conservative Supreme Court justice died as Republicans bungled their way to defeat.

Both sides agree that the debate over abortion will likely return to South Dakota.  But after two major defeats, it seems clear that the pro-life community missed its best shot at ending abortion in the Mount Rushmore State.