Abortion rights advocates campaign against South Dakota ballot measure

• Planned Parenthood and ACLU lead effort
• Groups say measure would weaken Roe v Wade

Abortion rights supporters today launched a campaign to defeat a proposed ban on the procedure in the state of South Dakota, citing potentially sweeping ramifications for US healthcare policy.

A coalition of advocacy groups - led by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) - denounced this year's South Dakota abortion ballot initiative as the first step towards undoing Roe v Wade, the 1973 US supreme court ruling that preserved abortion rights.

"The measure in South Dakota would allow politicians to interfere with personal decisions best made by women and their families," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said in a statement.

The South Dakota ban is similar to a 2006 ballot measure that voters rejected, 56% to 44%, prompting speculation that the era of dominant social conservatism was on the wane in America.

But public coolness to that ban appeared to rest with its lack of exceptions for women impregnated by incest or rape as well as women whose pregnancies endanger their health. Even George Bush, a fervent abortion opponent, signalled he disagreed with the ban's restrictive nature.

The new South Dakota proposal includes the three key exceptions, and its authors believe the changes can ensure its passage.

Critics of this year's ban, such as Planned Parenthood action fund president Cecile Richards, believe the exceptions are drawn up so as to ensure their ineffectiveness. Richards said the ban's authors have falsely depicted it as an improvement on the 2006 measure.

"They are being deceptive by characterising this proposed law as more reasonable and less restrictive," Richards said in a statement. "[T]he truth is that this ban would be the most rigid and inflexible ban on abortion in the United States."

The measure is unlikely to sway South Dakota's presidential vote, but its ramifications will be felt in the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain.

McCain has twice called for the Republican party platform - which opposes abortion - to carve out the rape, incest and health-based exceptions for women seeking the procedure.

Yet ABC news reported in May that social conservatives were pressuring McCain against trying to change the platform before Republicans nominate him next month in St Paul, Minnesota. McCain has yet to publicly embrace the South Dakota ban, which could be seen as a defence of his previous stance on the platform.

The McCain camp did not return a request for his stance on the South Dakota ballot measure.

If the ban is approved in November, the South Dakota state government has warned that it "will likely be challenged in court" as unconstitutional.

Another state-level referendum is facing the same fate in Colorado, where voters are being asked whether human "personhood" begins at conception. If passed, that measure would make Colorado the first state to outlaw abortion outright since the Roe court ruling.

The Colorado ban has secured endorsements from "over 70" anti-abortion physicians, according to its backers. But in the state's closely fought Senate race, both Democratic candidate Mark Udall and self-described "pro-life" Republican Bob Schaffer are opposing the ban.

"I think there are other strategies and tactics that get us far closer to advancing the cause of human life," Schaffer told a local Colorado radio station this month.


Elana Schor in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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