LYNDA HURST


Accused for years of crying wolf, American pro-choice advocates have just seen their worst fears come true.

Last week, South Dakota became the first U.S. state to sign into law a sweeping ban on virtually all abortions. It makes no exception for cases of rape or incest. A woman's life, not just her health, must be in jeopardy. It is just one of 12 states rushing to process similar legislation.

The moves are all deliberately aimed at provoking a legal showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court over its landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that gave women the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Activists are outraged by South Dakota's pre-emptive move, but far from surprised. The threat to abortion rights has been looming on the horizon ever since U.S. President George W. Bush walked into the White House, they say. It was only ever a question of when.

But many ordinary Americans, assuming that access to abortion, regardless of constant pro-life attacks, was a done deal legally, were stunned by the ban and the domino effect it has already ignited.

"People who'd thought we were alarmists have been calling all week, saying, `My God, you were right. What can we do?'" says Melody Drnach, a vice-president at NOW, the National Organization for Women.

The South Dakota law is scheduled to come into effect July 1 unless it is challenged.

By March 20, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which operates the only abortion clinic in the state, says it will decide which strategy to take challenge the ban in federal court as blatantly unconstitutional, an infringement on a woman's right to privacy as provided by Roe vs. Wade, or force a statewide referendum.

That means getting the signatures of 16,728 registered voters over the next three months so the law can be placed on the ballot in November's mid-term congressional elections. Either move would put the ban on hold.

"We're evaluating which strategy to go with because we will not allow this law to stand, absolutely not," says a vehement Sarah Stoesz, president of the Planned Parenthood division that covers South and North Dakota, as well as Minnesota.

"We will fight back, and we are a powerful movement. There are millions of people ready, chomping at the bit in fact, to get at this fight."

Organizations such as NOW, the National Abortion Rights Action League and the National Abortion Federation (NAF) second her assessment of available support. It's Planned Parenthood's call which legal route to take, but they say they'll be by its side either way, filing amicus briefs to take part in any court case, and rallying opponents across the United States.

The National Abortion Federation represents 400 physicians in the U.S. (and some in Canada) who provide about half the nation's million annual abortions. Its president, Vicki Saporta, expects the law to be immediately challenged. If it is upheld, abortions could be banned anywhere in the country.

"The courts will undoubtedly recognize how far outside of established precedent this law is," says Saporta.

Polls show a consistent majority, 65 per cent, of Americans oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade. But the Pew Research Center has found that the same percentage think there should be stricter limits to when and why the procedure can be obtained. Safe access to abortion in South Dakota has been steadily restricted in recent years. In 2005 alone, it passed five laws limiting it, including one that compels doctors to tell women they would be ending the life of a "whole, separate, unique human being."

Not that there are any doctors in the state willing any longer to provide terminations. Four physicians fly in from Minnesota once a week to the only clinic, in Sioux Falls, S.D., which performs about 800 procedures a year. Once the ban takes effect, doctors doing terminations could face five years in prison. In the meanwhile, however, the clinic remains resolutely open.

"This law lays bares the pro-life extremist agenda because it does nothing to extend birth control," says Planned Parenthood's Stoesz. "Contraception is what reduces the number of abortions. We do more than any pro-life group to prevent unwanted pregnancies."

Although anti-choice organizations have been chipping away at access laws for years, "right-wing ideologues" have had the underlying Roe vs. Wade law in their sights since it was passed, says NOW's Drnach. But only in the past six months, she adds, have all the necessary pieces come together for a full-scale assault:

A Republican president whose core support lies with pro-life and right-wing organizations.

A Republican-controlled Congress, where pro-life members have successfully fought off stem-cell research funding.

And even more important, the recent appointment of two conservative judges, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, to the Supreme Court. If 86-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens retires later this year as many suspect, a third conservative appointee could be named. The long-lasting 5 to 4 count in support of upholding Roe vs. Wade could be at an end.

The court could do the unthinkable, Drnach fears, and actually overturn a 33-year-old law.

"I have seen little in Roberts's and Alito's personal writing that persuades me they won't overturn it given the chance," says Drnach. ``That's why South Dakota Governor (Mike) Rounds was going: `This is it. This is our time. Let's be the first to jump ship.'"

Rounds, in fact, has set up a special account to accept donations for the state's anticipated legal fees. An anonymous donor already has pledged $1 million.

Pro-choice activists will also be looking for donations, but Drnach says NOW is concentrating on setting up cadres of grass-roots activists in South Dakota and the other Republican "red" states where anti-choice laws are pending, among them Ohio, Georgia, Indiana and Mississippi.

"We want the ban repealed," she says. "But we also want narrow-minded, bigoted congressional candidates exchanged for those with common sense in November. Door-knocking, making calls, organizing rallies we'll support any and all strategies because these ideologues are not going to stop at abortion."

The scene south of the border rattles Hazelle Palmer, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Toronto. Yes, she could see it coming, she says; anyone involved in defending reproductive rights could.

"But what's happening in the U.S. is the worst-case scenario. It makes you nervous because you wonder what cues will be picked up from it up here."