South Dakota voters on Tuesday firmly rejected a law banning nearly all abortions, but supporters of the measure vowed to continue pushing to further restrict abortion in the state.
With 91 percent of the state's precincts reporting, 55 percent opposed the abortion ban while 45 percent supported it.
Tuesday's vote ended a heated campaign that had drawn extensive national attention while dividing the state's medical and religious communities. Campaign spending trying to sway voters totaled nearly $4 million.
The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, the group that forced the measure onto the ballot, called the bill's defeat a victory for reproductive rights.
"I think most importantly it sends a strong message to our Legislature," said Kate Looby, South Dakota state director of Planned Parenthood. "South Dakotans have had enough abortion legislation."
Earlier this year, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved the ban. A court battle would have been inevitable had the ban passed, as it was designed to pose a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
As the votes stacked up against the ban Tuesday, abortion opponents vowed not to stop their battle to end abortions.
Republican state Rep. Roger Hunt said it's too early to predict the next steps for the anti-abortion movement in South Dakota but said more restrictions could be proposed.
"We're going to take it a day at a time," Hunt said. "There are a number of things that can be looked at."
Hunt said the state's health department is now considering placing specific regulations on abortion clinics in South Dakota. The state's only clinic is Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls.
"I saw a copy of that a few weeks ago," Hunt said of the potential regulations.
Campaign manager Leslee Unruh said the Vote Yes for Life on Six campaign succeeded in changing the rhetoric in the anti-abortion movement by emphasizing that "abortion hurts women." She said she expects similar campaigns against abortion to take place in states including West Virginia and Texas.
"They're never going to win, and we're never going to quit," Unruh said. "Women are being heard all over this nation and it started here in South Dakota."
University of South Dakota political science professor Don Dahlin said it's too early to gauge how the new Legislature would vote on future abortion restrictions. But Dahlin said the vote could mean legislators will think harder before introducing and voting for more abortion legislation in future sessions.
"Legislators after all do represent their constituents, and so the legislators have to be a little more sensitive to, 'Are we getting out a little ahead of our constituents on this issue?'" Dahlin said. "I assume legislators at least will take note of that."
The referendum kills the measure which sought to prohibit all abortions except those done to save the life of a pregnant woman. The ban stated that life begins at conception and that abortion should be prohibited to "fully protect the rights, interests and health of the pregnant mother, the rights, interest and life of her unborn child and the mother's fundamental natural intrinsic right to a relationship with her child.''
The ban also called for a possible Class 5 felony charge against anyone, who knowingly performed or tried to perform an abortion. A conviction could have meant up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
But opponents gathered more than twice the amount of petition signatures needed to place the measure on the statewide ballot. They focused their efforts on attacking the measure as too extreme, saying the ban offered no options in cases of rape, incest or a threat to a pregnant woman's life.
Supporters fought back, saying the ban did offer options to rape and incest survivors thanks to a provision stating that nothing in the ban would prevent women from taking emergency contraceptives until the time a pregnancy could be determined through conventional means.
The campaigns spent nearly $4 million. Questions still exist over a $750,000 donation given by an anonymous donor to the Vote Yes campaign through a corporation set up by Hunt. Hunt has said he will protect the donor's identity.
The ban's defeat could "throw a wet blanket" on the national movement opposing abortion, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at Virginia's University of Richmond. "I do think it could send a message if the people of South Dakota say that this measure is too extreme," he said.
Minnehaha County voters said no to the abortion ban, voting 57 to 43 percent against it. Early returns from Pennington County showed an even wider margin with 60 percent of the voters opposing the abortion law. A majority of other West River counties were overwhelmingly against the ban for abortion. Twenty-one counties voted in support of the ban, most of them in the rural central or north central parts of the state.
At a polling place just across the Lincoln County border, Ronna Sletten of Sioux Falls said she voted against the ban.
"I think it should be peoples' choice," she said. "I think it's going to be very close."
In Sioux Falls, Helen Humphries said she'd had her mind made up on the abortion issue since became pregnant at age 16.
"I didn't have an abortion," said Humphries, 48. "But I know people who have had one, and it's taken a toll on them."
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