‘It was really devastating’: South Dakota’s only abortion clinic halts procedures as Supreme Court decides fate of Roe

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Leaked Supreme Court ruling on ‘Roe’ has triggered demonstrations across America (Getty Images)
Leaked Supreme Court ruling on ‘Roe’ has triggered demonstrations across America (Getty Images)

The only abortion clinic in South Dakota has said it is halting all procedures until the Supreme Court decides the future of Roe v Wade.

In an announcement that deeply saddened activists who had fought to defend access to abortion in one of the nation’s battlefields for reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood said procedures at its facility in Sioux Falls were “paused”. It said its clinics in Wisconsin were not booking appointments after 25 June.

Meanwhile, the news was celebrated by South Dakota’s deeply conservative governor, Kristi Noem, 50, who has been at the forefront of efforts to turn her state into one of America’s abortion deserts, and allegedly make use of her position to prepare for a White House run in 2024.

“While knew this was coming, it was still really devastating,” a 36-year-old activist, who asked to be identified as “Katie” (not her real name) tells The Independent.

“It was actually a lot worse than I think any of us thought it was going to be, just the emotional weight of it.”

In recent months, states such as Texas and Mississippi, whose 15-week ban is being reviewed by the Supreme Court, and may end to the scrapping of Roe, have earned much media attention, and public outcry.

Follow live coverage of the Supreme Court’s looming decision

Yet, South Dakota, a plains state with a population of just 890,000 people and a capital city, Pierre, that has long been a favourite for those setting questions for trivia quizzes, has over the past two decades been a battleground for the religious right’s efforts to restrict and limit abortion access.

As it stands, South Dakota is one of the most restrictive states, with women required to wait 72-hours, and have two in-person consultations with a doctor, even for medication abortions.

Noem had sought to impose legislation similar to a Texas law banning all abortions after detection of a foetal heartbeat, a measure that was rejected by Republicans legislatators for tactical reasons.

Nevertheless, abortion would become all but completely illegal if Roe is overturned, because of an abortion ban from 2005 that would be triggered.

There would be no exception for rape of incest; the only reason a woman could obtain an abortion was if a doctor deemed her life to be in danger.

“Abortion is technically legal in both South Dakota and Missouri,” writes Robin Marty in New Handbook for a Post-Roe America.

“But in both cases, patients are being urged or directly forced to go to other states to get them.”

She adds: “That is how Roe gets overturned without anyone really noticing at all.”

Katie, the activist who volunteers with a group based in Sioux Falls, the Justice Empowerment Network (JEN), says her group often advised women to drive to Colorado or Nebraska to get an abortion, especially if they lived in the centre or west of the state.

“It may be a few hours further, but at least you’ll only have to make one appointment,” she says. State law prohibits the use of telemedicine for a woman to consult with her doctor.

Abortion-rights activists march near the home of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett (Getty Images)
Abortion-rights activists march near the home of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett (Getty Images)

Abortions in South Dakota have, for some time, been very limited in numbers. Reports suggest in the five years from 2016 to 2020, there were 1,890 abortions performed in South Dakota, that were reported to the Department of Health.

“There was a a 10 per cent decline in the abortion rate in South Dakota between 2014 and 2017, from 3.5 to 3.1 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age,” according to a report by the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute

“Abortions in South Dakota represent 0.1 per cent of all abortions in the United States.”

It is not hard to see why this is.

For nearly two decades, no doctor in South Dakota has been prepared to perform an abortion, so Planned Parenthood has flown in physicians from Minnesota, or other states, to carry out the procedure.

Katie, the activist, says when things were extremely tense in Sioux Falls, one doctor took to wearing a protective flak jacket, while the clinic’s doors are made of bullet-proof glass.

Some believe Republican Kristi Noem has White House ambitions (Getty Images)
Some believe Republican Kristi Noem has White House ambitions (Getty Images)

One of the physicians who has flown in repeatedly from her home in the Minneapolis area is Dr Sarah Traxler, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood across a five-state region. She flies in and is met with a security detail at the airport.

Planned Parenthood says Traxler has stopped giving interviews since a leaked draft published by Politico suggested the Supreme Court was ready to overturn Roe, the 1973 ruling that, for two generations, women have relied upon to access to legal medical abortions.

“We’ve been able to justify this because we’re willing to go to extreme lengths for our patients, because they should have access to this care,” Traxler, 47, recently toldThe Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in Minnesota. “It’s safe, it’s legal, it should be everywhere.”

She said someone had recently asked her if the situation would get this bad.

“I said yes,” she said, explaining she had watched opponents of abortion push back access in other parts of the nation, particularly in the South.

“I think I was sort of anticipating this day.”

Katie, the activist, says that during the pandemic, the situation at the clinic in Sioux Falls often became “crazy”.

For more than a year, anti-abortion activists rented a property close to the clinic, and installed pews and an alter. In this makeshift church they held services and said prayers that were sometimes carried on loud speakers.

In December 2021, the chapel next to the clinic closed after complaints that it was breaking zoning laws.

Some of the activists were from the a Catholic-based nonprofit called Mission SOS. The group did not respond to inquiries.

Its website says “Located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota with the prime objective of saving the lives of unborn babies and closing down Planned Parenthood in the East River Diocese.”

It adds: “By the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and under the protection of The Most Holy Virgin Mary, we give praise to God in his goodness for all that He has accomplished so far. May all unplanned families find refuge in The Unplanned Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The holiest of unplanned families!”

When Planned Parenthood said it was pausing producers in Sioux Falls, Noem tweeted: “Abortions have stopped in South Dakota. We have prayed for this day, and now it is here.”

She added: “Now, we must redouble our focus on taking care of mothers in crisis. Help is available for you. Adoption is an option. You are never alone.”

She did not say whether more money would be available for child services, already stretched in the case Her office did not immediately respond to inquiries.

Katie says she understands why Planned Parenthood has had to pause procedures, as it could be unfair on women and staff.

Nevertheless, the moment came as a blow.

“I think we’ve kind of almost been in denial up until this point,” she says.

“You’re just focused on what you’re doing right now, and you try not to think about the fact that this is happening.”