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South Dakota Right to Life Blocks Minor Clarification of Life-of-Mother Exception to Abortion Ban

Three weeks ago, South Dakota Right to Life blocked Representative Taylor Rehfeldt’s (R-14/Sioux Falls) effort to make a teeny-weeny expansion of South Dakota’s near-total abortion ban to add the risk to a pregnant woman of “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of one or more bodily functions” as legal justification for terminating a pregnancy. Yesterday, SDRTL appears to have blocked Rehfeldt’s fellow nurse and, under South Dakota law, second-class citizen Senator Erin Tobin’s (R-21/Winner) even smaller change to the abortion ban.

Chairing Senate Health and Human Services yesterday morning, Senator Tobin wanted to hoghouse House Bill 1053. Instead of passing Representative Fred Deutsch’s (R-4/Florence) effort to deny medical cannabis cards to pregnant or breastfeeding women, Tobin posted an amendment that would hoghouse HB 1053 to provide the following clarification of South Dakota’s sole grounds for a legal abortion:

Notwithstanding any other law, before an abortion may be justified as necessary to preserve the life of a pregnant female, as set forth in § 22-17-5.1, the attending physician, exercising reasonable medical judgment, must determine that the female suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, which would place the female in danger of death, unless an abortion is performed [Senator Erin Tobin, potential hoghouse amendment to 2023 House Bill 1053, published but not moved, 2023.03.01].

While the title of Tobin’s hoghouse amendment said the intent was to authorize abortions “to avert the death or physical impairment of a pregnant female”, the language of the amendment does not appear to allow abortions to avert physical impairment alone, only “danger of death”.

Tobin did not explain the scope of her amendment, because neither she nor anyone else on Senate Health and Human Services moved it or even mentioned it. The closest anyone we came to having a discussion of clarifying or expanding the exception to South Dakota’s abortion ban came during discussion of another bill, House Bill 1220, which offers immunity from criminal prosecution to any women who undergoes an abortion (though still not for women who seek or obtain abortion medication, who attempt to travel out of state to obtain abortion services, or who dare help other women access reproductive health services that the state deems uppity). Calling SDRTL boss Dale Bartscher back to the table, Senator Tobin pointed to language (actually medical malarkey, but medical professional Tobin didn’t point that out) Bartscher recited in support of HB 1220:

Tobin: Looking at the statement that you handed out to us, you have highlighted at the end of this second paragraph here, “Far too many American women suffer devastating physical and psychological damage following abortion.” With that in mind, do you think there’s a place in the future to look at the health of the mother because that would also affect physical and psychological damage to that mother?

Bartscher: …Right to Life definitely will continue to collaborate with anyone on issues of the protection of the mother and the baby in the mother’s womb.

Tobin: Wonderful. It seems like it’s a very high priority here in this statement, so I will be expecting further work on that [Senator Erin Tobin and SDRTL exec Dale Bartscher, Q&A during Senate State Affairs hearing on 2023 HB 1220, 2023.03.01, transcribed from SDPB audio timestamp 1:22:35].

Tobin didn’t phrase her question directly as a question about her potential hoghouse amendment or about exceptions for abortion. Apparently, the Republicans who depend on South Dakota Right to Life’s endorsement aren’t allowed to ask SDRTL direct questions on the record. But everyone in the room understood the challenge Senator Tobin was posing… and everyone reading Bartscher’s exact words can see that he completely avoided the question of whether his special interest group would ever allow Republicans to pass an exception for mothers’ health to the absolute abortion ban they so cherish.

Following the hearing, Senator Tobin tweeted what she believes will happen if Bartscher and South Dakota Right to Life don’t relent and allow more sensible, humane exceptions to the abortion ban:

Senator Erin Tobin, tweet, 2023.03.01.
Senator Erin Tobin, tweet, 2023.03.01.

The SDGOP spin blog endorses Senator Tobin’s fear: failing to moderate South Dakota’s extreme position on abortion increases the chances that South Dakotans will approve restoring the Roe v. Wade-era abortion rights that they endorsed in 2006 and 2008 ballot measure votes via an initiated constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot. Senator Tobin made that point last month when SDRTL blocked her and Representative Rehfeldt’s attempt to defuse abortion tensions with their minor exception, and she’s sticking with it.

Having deterred Senator Tobin from proposing her hoghouse amendment (and why back down, Senator Tobin? Even if you don’t have the votes, why not propose it, put SDRTL on the hotseat, and discuss their absolutism in the open instead Bartscher hide behind his mealy-mouthed deflections?), South Dakota Right to Life has apparently used its special-interest power to block any attempt to protect the life and health of pregnant women in South Dakota. Senator Tobin is warning that SDRTL is counterproductively helping supporters of women’s rights make their argument that South Dakotans need to offer that protection themselves by putting abortion access on the ballot and into the state constitution. On that latter point, I can say, for once, Keep up the good work, Dale!


  1. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-03-02 06:39

    On SDPB yesterday noon, Rep. Will Mortenson (R-24/Pierre) also endorsed the idea that SDRTL’s refusal now to countenance any easing of the abortion ban helps the folks who are trying to put a pro-Roe constitutional amendment on the ballot. If SDRTL continues to play the extremists, Dakotans for Health can more easily demonstrate that it is the centrist, sensible organization that better reflects South Dakotans’ values and policy preferences.

  2. Mark Anderson 2023-03-02 08:40

    The doggies who caught the cars heads are spinning. Their dizzy with power but can’t win one vote.

  3. O 2023-03-02 08:54

    Now that bumperstickers and slogans have become the law, women have to live under the Right to Life/GOP extremist law generated from their rhetoric. Their position has always been extremist: “We oppose abortion and assisted suicide in all forms.” The fact that some more moderate voices now want to take a few of the edges off those positions does not change the spots of those leopards. They remain unflinching in their positions — especially now in their complete victory. Again, these are not new positions. It was easy to excuse/ignore them before because they did not carry the weight of policy until Dobbs snapped them into existence. “Moderate” GOP could call themselves aligned with Right to Life without having to carry the fill weight of what that meant beyond the slogan. Now Right To Life is come to collect.

    Words carry weight, and extremism rhetoric carries extremism policy consequences.

  4. John 2023-03-02 09:19

    Peak stupid, er republican (but I repeat myself), likely ebbed in the trump presidency. But we’ll continue paying the price of their dangerous stupidity for years.

    Over 61% think abortion ought to be legal in all or most cases. The young, future voters have stronger support for legal abortion.
    By supporting a phony interpretation of 17th Century English law, pre-American law, the right wingers alienate themselves from 21st Century voters. Hand the right wingers a shovel.

    Student loan forgiveness. Biden won this – whatever the not-so-Supreme Court decides. Biden won by fulfilling his promise to carry the issue of unfair, unreasonable usury in often public education. Biden won this because the jubilee will unleash the US economy with increased investment and spending by those our from under the immoral usury. Biden won this if the Court strikes down his loan forgiveness – because the Court will alienate 45 million folks who will vote for their next 40-50 years. (College cost the Supremes an average of $42k; today they would pay $320k for THE SAME EDUCATION (likely taught from the same yellow, wrinkled legal pad).) Hand the republicans the keys to the excavator. Even CPAC is a ghost of its former nonsensical self.

  5. Richard Schriever 2023-03-02 09:58

    Cory – “…..continues to play the extremists…..” is a nifty turn of phrase, but it is an inaccuracy. They are in fact, NOT PLAYING at being extremists. They ARE extremists – real ones.

  6. DaveFN 2023-03-02 11:20

    “…..continues to play the extremists….. ” means “….continues to agitate the extremists…”

    rather than ” …continues to play at being extremists… “

  7. O 2023-03-02 12:45

    John alludes to a point that Cory is also implicitly making in this piece: these ideologues have not constrained their strategic thinking to democratic pathways for their the victory. In fact, looking at the right-wing take over of the federal judicial system, down right anti-democratic strategies have been at play and are coming into fruition to move policy objectives forward AGAINST popular/democratic will. The GOP’s gerrymandering and disenfranchisement is not new. What difference does it make what 61% of people think if that 61% are not represented by elected officials who choose to act in the best interests of majority of their constituents? What difference does it make what 61% of people think if they don’t have access to referendum measures — or measures they pass are nullified by non-representative legislatures or courts? The arc of history may bend toward justice, but REAL democracy needs to step up given the assault and success of the powered interests pushing the nation ever more toward a gilded, dark age, nationalist, theocracy. Abortion, taxes, guns . . . our laws do not represent the will of the people.

  8. Eve Fisher 2023-03-02 16:11

    South Dakota Right to Life: We will unalterably oppose any and all abortions, for whatever reason, until the woman is actually dying in a hospital, and even then the doctors better have 100% proof that she would have died within 24 hours (at the most) if they didn’t help her. Because pregnant women are host bodies, and not even valuable livestock. (Tell me one farmer or rancher who would wait until a cow was dying to remove a dying calf from its uterus…) Pro-life, my Aunt Fanny.
    Meanwhile, South Dakota Doctors: I’m not treating / helping / seeing any pregnant woman ever again.

  9. e platypus onion 2023-03-05 16:32

    Looseranna magats want to charge women who take Plan B pills with murder and outlaw abortion from moment of conception. The Earth’s core is the limit to how low magats are willing to go.

  10. clara hart 2023-03-06 04:39

    I miss being on DFP.

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