Lawmakers in South Dakota are beginning to take the first steps to advance a stringent law that could end up banning abortions after just seven weeks of pregnancy. If it becomes law, it will be the second harshest ban in the nation — right behind the state’s neighbor, North Dakota, which passed a six-week abortion ban last year that’s currently blocked from taking effect.
The legislation in question, House Bill 1241, doesn’t explicitly ban abortions at a certain point in a pregnancy. Instead, it uses vague and biased language to describe the abortion procedure in a way that could have serious consequences for the doctors in the state.
HB 1241 seeks to “prohibit the dismemberment or decapitation of certain living unborn children.” The doctors who violate the proposed law would be charged with a Class 2 felony, and could face up to 25 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. According to the Republican lawmaker who introduced the measure, state Rep. Isaac Latterell, the bill is intended to target certain types of later abortion procedures after 16 weeks of pregnancy that involve dilation and evacuation.
“It just makes clear that a certain procedure that is totally horrific and gruesome to any reasonable person would not be an acceptable method of ending a child’s life, and that is to dismember or decapitate a living, unborn child,” Latterell explained to the Argus Leader.
However, as RH Reality Check reports, there aren’t any clinics in South Dakota that perform those type of later abortions in the first place. There’s only one abortion clinic in the state, and it offers surgical abortion procedures up to 13 weeks of pregnancy. The patients who require the type of later abortion care that Latterell is concerned about are referred to other states. But that doesn’t mean HB 1241 wouldn’t have any impact. The measure’s vague language would actually target the abortion doctors who are providing earlier procedures, because they may be too worried about the potential legal ramifications of ending a pregnancy.
“As soon as there are visible parts, the embryo or fetus is rarely removed intact,” one physician who preferred to remain anonymous explained to RH Reality Check. “This bill could ban any abortion past seven weeks.”
This type of uncertainty is exactly what state-level abortion restrictions are designed to create. If abortion providers are operating in a climate of fear because they aren’t sure how they’re supposed to interpret new laws, many of them will choose to stop performing abortions so they’re not at risk of going to jail.
And this type of language about abortion — construing it as “dismemberment or decapitation” — is specifically intended to give the impression that all abortion procedures are barbaric and all abortion providers are monsters. In fact, nearly 90 percent of abortions occur in the first trimester and aren’t analogous to the scene that HB 1241 conjures up. Nonetheless, the anti-choice community repeatedly accuses Planned Parenthood of committing “infanticide,” or uses terms like “post-birth abortion” and “partial-birth abortion” to evoke gruesome images. And after illegal abortion provider Kermit Gosnell’s crimes came to light, the right-wing media has done everything in its power to misconstrue safe and legal clinics as carrying on Gosnell’s work.
HB 1241 has been referred to South Dakota’s Health and Human Services Committee. And lawmakers in the state have recently been trying to restrict abortion in other ways, too — this week, a legislative panel advanced a different abortion bill that would ban women from ending a pregnancy based on the fetus’ gender, another requirement that would be difficult for doctors to enforce.