South Dakota outlaws abortion

The US state of South Dakota has signed into law a near-total ban on abortion in a move the governor called a 'direct frontal assault' on the supreme court decision 33 years ago to legalise it

South Dakota's governor, Mike Rounds, yesterday signed a bill that will make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless the procedure is necessary to save the woman's life.

The legislation would make no exception for instances of rape or incest, though victims in such cases could get emergency contraception.

Under the new law, which is due to come into effect on July 1, doctors could get up to five years in prison for performing an illegal abortion.

The move is seen as one of several intentional challenges to Roe v Wade, the case that made abortion legal in the US in 1973. Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, has said he will sign a bill to all but ban the procedure, and new anti-abortion legislation has been proposed in Ohio, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee.

"The anti-choice folks across the country are feeling emboldened by the climate," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "You have an anti-choice president; you have an anti-choice US house and senate. We see that this is about more than just South Dakota: it's about the country."

"We fully intend to challenge this law," said Kate Looby, state director of Planned Parenthood, which operates South Dakota's only abortion clinic. "It's just a question of how."

"Obviously, we are very disappointed that Governor Rounds has sided on the side of politics rather than on the side of the women of South Dakota to protect their health and safety," Ms Looby said.

About 800 abortions are performed each year in South Dakota. Planned Parenthood has said other women cross state lines in order to reach clinics.

The abortion bill passed South Dakota's Republican-dominated legislature earlier this month. The House voted by 50 to 18, the senate by 23 to 12. However, in the likely event of a legal challenge before the legislation is due to take effect, a judge would probably suspend the abortion ban, meaning that the bill would not change state policy unless the case got all the way to the US supreme court and the state won.

Rob Regier, executive director of the South Dakota Family Policy Council, commended Mr Rounds' decision to sign the bill into law. "His signature marks the beginning of a renewed effort to abolish abortion in our country," he said.

And the Republican senator Bill Napoli said on the US TV channel PBS that most abortions were being carried out for "convenience". He insisted, however, that exceptions could be made for rape or incest under a provision that protects the mother's life.

"A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged," he said. "The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalised and raped, sodomised as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."

Campaigners for and against abortion have pointed to the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the supreme court as critical factors in the growing strength of the anti-abortion lobby.They believe this rebalancing of the court will make it more likely to overturn Roe v Wade.

Judge Alito replaces Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who according to the pro-abortion Centre for Reproductive Rights was often was the deciding vote on women's reproductive rights cases.

The US trend towards new anti-abortion laws runs counter to moves in the rest of the world. According to a report published by the centre, since 1995 15 countries have passed laws making abortion legal under more circumstances while only five - including the US - have taken steps to make abortion illegal or more difficult to obtain.

The African states of Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Mali have relaxed some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws to recognise as grounds for abortion saving a woman's life and protecting her health in cases of rape, incest, and foetal impairment.

Nepal lifted its prohibition in 2002, when the procedure was made legal without restriction during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and thereafter where a woman's health was at risk.

Meanwhile, laws restricting abortions have been passed in El Salvador, Hungary, Poland and the Russian Federation, as well as the US.

In Poland the conservative Law and Justice party took power last October, and women's rights groups now fear the country's already restrictive abortion laws could be tightened further to deny abortions to rape victims and women with deformed foetuses (although Law and Justice has proposed no such measures).

At the European parliament, in Strasbourg, in November the League of Polish Families, an ultra-Catholic party, ran a controversial exhibition comparing abortion to Nazi death camps.

And in Mexico, where abortion law has been relaxed since 1995, Felipe Calderon, the presidential candidate for the incumbent National Action party, has cited scripture in stump speeches and trumpeted an anti-abortion party line - positions that proved critical in winning a three-way race for the party nomination.

Robert Booth and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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