Some of my readers have asked me where South Dakota’s main Democratic candidate for governor, Senator Billie Sutton, stands on women’s reproductive rights. At peril of triggering Karl Rove’s critique of Democrats’ intolerance on abortion, I find that on ten relatively important abortion-related bills or resolutions during his seven Sessions in Pierre, Senator Sutton has voted with pro-choice advocates only twice.
The table below lists the bills and resolutions that come up under the subject “Abortion” under the LRC’s classification in each Session from 2011 to 2017, plus two that escaped that indexing in 2013. If I’ve missed any, do let me know, and I’ll add them. On this table, I mark in bold the eleven measures I subjectively deem more important to determining women’s rights to access abortion services. Sutton was excused from one of those votes.
|Bill||Title||Pro-Choice Vote||Sutton Vote||Notes|
|2017 HB 1101||increase the penalty for performing an abortion of an unborn child capable of feeling pain.||nay||nay||increases penalty from C1 misdemeanor to C6 felony under 2016 SB 72 fetal pain bill|
|2017 SB 102||require that the name and telephone number of an organization fighting to end sex trafficking be given, in writing, to any woman seeking an abortion.||nay||aye||passed 33-0 in Senate, 66-1 House, Tieszen only nay|
|2016 HB 1123||require the Department of Health to include certain information regarding the inspection of an abortion facility on the department’s website.||nay||aye||passed 35-0 in Senate, 60-8 in House|
|2016 HB 1157||require that a doctor provide a woman additional information as a part of informed consent prior to performing an abortion.||nay||yea||NARAL-PCSD said “medically unproven info”|
|2016 HB 1212||revise requirements related to pregnancy help centers.||nay||yea||arguable: allows PHC to have social worker; puts PHC group in charge of regulating self|
|2016 SB 24||prohibit the sale of fetal body parts and to provide a penalty therefor.||nay||yea||unanimous in both houses; culture war distraction|
|2016 SB 72||prohibit the abortion of an unborn child who is capable of experiencing pain and to provide a penalty therefor.||nay||yea||NARAL-PCSD no; Senate 21-14, then 26-7 on House amendments|
|2015 HB 1079||revise the deadline for the Department of Health’s annual report regarding abortions.||yea||set deadline as Nov 15|
|2015 HB 1130||prohibit an abortion provider from accepting payment for an abortion prior to the end of the required informed consent period.||nay||yea||unnecessary, insult to women|
|2015 HB 1155||require that information be provided to a pregnant mother whose child tests positive for Down syndrome.||died in House|
|2015 HB 1156||prohibit the performance of abortions due to Down syndrome and to provide a penalty therefor.||withdrawn in House cmte|
|2015 HB 1230||affirm the sanctity of human life.||tabled in Senate cmte||originally banning abortion by beheading|
|2014 HB 1162||prohibit the practice of sex-selective abortions, to establish certain procedures to better ensure that sex-selective abortions are not practiced in South Dakota, and to provide penalties therefor.||nay||yea||compels speech|
|2014 HB 1180||provide that no entity that places children for adoption or performs abortions may be registered as a pregnancy help center.||nay||nay||forces women to visit abortion opponents for counseling|
|2014 HB 1240||prohibit the performance of abortions due to Down syndrome and to provide a penalty therefor.||died in House cmte|
|2014 HB 1241||prohibit the dismemberment or decapitation of certain living unborn children and to provide penalties therefore.||died in House cmte|
|2013 HB 1237||revise certain provisions to abortion counseling.||nay||excused||exclude weekends and holidays from 72-hour waiting period|
|2013 HCR 1002||Urging the United States Supreme Court to revisit the Roe v. Wade case and to overturn its decision.||nay||yea||Overturn Roe v. Wade, and SD’s 2005 abortion ban becomes near total except health/life mother|
|2012 HB 1150||prohibit false advertising by limited services pregnancy centers and to provide for judicial relief.||yea, but died in House cmte||Gibson sponsored; Peters signed on as co-sponsor; Sutton did not|
|2012 HB 1185||prohibit all qualified health plans offered through a health care exchange from including abortion coverage.||nay||yea|
|2012 HB 1254||revise certain provisions pertaining to the decision of a pregnant mother considering termination of her relationship with her child by an abortion, to establish certain procedures to insure that such decisions are voluntary, uncoerced, and informed, and to revise certain causes of action for professional negligence relating to performance of an abortion.||nay||yea||makes coercive counseling law worse|
|2012 HCR 1001||Recognizing the week of January 22, 2012, through January 28, 2012, as Reproductive Rights Awareness Week.||yea, but died in House cmte||Buhl, Frerichs, Maher, Peters sponsored; Sutton did not|
|2011 HB 1217||establish certain legislative findings pertaining to the decision of a pregnant mother considering termination of her relationship with her child by an abortion, to establish certain procedures to better insure that such decisions are voluntary, uncoerced, and informed, and to revise certain causes of action for professional negligence relating to performance of an abortion.||nay||yea||forced counseling, 72-hour waiting period…|
Sutton’s first major abortion vote may have had the most negative impact on South Dakota women. In 2011, Sutton supported House Bill 1217, which imposed South Dakota’s egregious 72-hour waiting period and forced “counseling” sessions for women seeing abortions. In 2016, Sutton supported Senate Bill 72, a 20-week abortion ban based on dubious science about “fetal pain.” To his credit, Sutton this year resisted Republicans’ effort to toughen that “fetal pain” ban. Sutton’s nay on House Bill 1101 didn’t stop Republicans from raising the penalty in the “fetal pain” ban from misdemeanor to felony, but Sutton gets a point for trying. But in seven years, he has scored only two pro-choice points out of ten.
The signal vote of those ten may actually be a vote that had no practical impact. In 2013, Senator Billie Sutton voted in favor of House Concurrent Resolution 1002, which called on the United States Supreme Court to revisit and overturn Roe v. Wade. 2013 HCR 1002 read in full:
WHEREAS, on January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade; and
WHEREAS, Supreme Court Justice Byron White, a dissenter in the case, described the decision by the majority as “an exercise of raw judicial power”; and
WHEREAS, the case overturned state laws in forty-six states; and
WHEREAS, the decision in Roe v. Wade overturned South Dakota’s state statutes on the subject of abortion; and
WHEREAS, technological advances in the last forty years such as invitro photography have documented the clear humanity of the unborn child; and
WHEREAS, Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the case (the actual Roe), now repudiates and regrets her involvement in the case; and
WHEREAS, this case has resulted in the death of countless millions of unborn children in our nation:
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the House of Representatives of the Eighty-Eighth Legislature of the State of South Dakota, the Senate concurring therein, that we do hereby urge the United States Supreme Court to revisit the Roe v. Wade case, to overturn its decision, and to allow this issue to be decided at the state level as it was prior to January 22, 1973 [2013 HCR 1002, as enrolled 2013.01.29].
Senator Sutton’s colleague down the road in Pickstown, Senator Larry Lucas, spoke against HCR 1002 and explained that if the Supreme Court did take South Dakota up on its invitation and overturned Roe v. Wade, our 2005 abortion ban would immediately take effect and outlaw all abortions, with exceptions only for the health of the pregnant woman. Senator Sutton did not speak to the resolution; he simply voted for it.
As we know, resolutions do nothing. Resolutions are far too often exercises in rhetorical grandstanding for legislators who’d rather be somewhere else than in Pierre solving practical, state-level problems. Nonetheless, in 2013, Senator Sutton agreed to a resolution that calls for the reversal of the basic case law guaranteeing women’s right to abortion.
Sutton wasn’t a dad when he cast that vote. I didn’t realize the importance of Roe v. Wade and keeping government out of women’s bodies until I watched my wife go through pregnancy. Watching a woman one loves make decisions about her body puts in stark context what’s at stake in government trying to limit or usurp those decisions. Perhaps fatherhood has similarly tempered Sutton’s views on who else besides a woman and her doctor should be involved in deciding how to conduct her pregnancy.
But Sutton’s mostly anti-choice voting record, including a call to trash Roe v. Wade, is what it is. If fatherhood or any other experiences or contemplations have pulled his views more toward women’s rights, Sutton will have to explain that on the campaign trail… and a look at his campaign statements and website indicate that Sutton wants to talk about jobs, education, agriculture, and his faith in God, not women’s reproductive rights.
Of course, if Democrats are stuck with a gubernatorial candidate whose score on an admittedly subjective and perhaps incomplete scorecard is a measly two points out of ten, that’s still two more points than any other declared candidate is going to score. Republican candidate Kristi Noem sponsored and voted for all sorts of anti-choice legislation when she was in the House from 2007 to 2010 (sonogram requirements, ban on all elective abortion). Marty Jackley has had the pleasure of defending South Dakota’s abortion restrictions in court and uses his position as attorney general to weigh in favorably on other states’ efforts to quash abortion as well. Dark-horse Republicans Terry LaFleur and Lora Hubbel offer no better alternatives.
But 20% versus 0% doesn’t give me cheer on this issue. If you’re looking for a South Dakota governor with a clear and consistent commitment to women’s reproductive autonomy, you’re looking for a candidate who hasn’t declared yet.