An anti-abortion group in South Dakota sues to take an abortion rights initiative off the ballot

FILE - South Dakota Republican state Rep. Jon Hansen, shown here Feb. 21, 2024, in the state House of Representatives in Pierre, S.D., is a co-chair of Life Defense Fund, an anti-abortion group which filed suit, June 13, 2024, to block an abortion rights initiative from the November ballot. (AP Photo/Jack Dura, file)

An anti-abortion group in South Dakota has sued to block an abortion rights measure from the November ballot.

In its complaint filed Thursday, Life Defense Fund alleged various wrongdoing by the measure's supporters, as well as invalid signatures and fraud. The group seeks to disqualify or invalidate the initiative.

In May, Secretary of State Monae Johnson validated the measure by Dakotans for Health for the Nov. 5 general election ballot. The measure's supporters had submitted about 54,000 signatures to qualify the ballot initiative. They needed about 35,000 signatures. Johnson's office deemed about 85% of signatures as valid, based on a random sample.

Life Defense Fund alleged Dakotans for Health didn't file a required affidavit for petition circulators' residency, and that petitioners didn't always provide a required circulator handout and left petition sheets unattended. Life Defense Fund also objected to numerous more signatures as invalid, and alleged petitioners misled people as to what they were signing.

“The public should scrutinize Dakotan for Health’s comments and carefully consider its credibility. In the end, the Court will determine whether such unlawful conduct may result in the measure being included on the ballot,” Life Defense Fund attorney Sara Frankenstein said in an email Monday.

Dakotans for Health called Life Defense Fund's lawsuit “a last-ditch effort to undermine the democratic process."

"They have thrown everything they could, and now the kitchen sink, to stop the voters from weighing in this November. We are confident that the people of South Dakota are going to be able to make this decision, not the politicians, come this November,” co-founder Rick Weiland said in a statement Friday.

The measure would bar the state from regulating “a pregnant woman’s abortion decision and its effectuation” in the first trimester, but it would allow second-trimester regulations “only in ways that are reasonably related to the physical health of the pregnant woman."

The constitutional amendment would allow the state to regulate or prohibit abortion in the third trimester, “except when abortion is necessary, in the medical judgment of the woman’s physician, to preserve the life or health of the pregnant woman.”

South Dakota outlaws abortion as a felony crime, except to save the life of the mother, under a trigger law that took effect in 2022 with the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs decision that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade.

The measure drew opposition from South Dakota's Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year. The Legislature approved a resolution officially opposing the measure, and it passed a law allowing petition signers to withdraw their signatures from initiative petitions. The latter is not expected to affect the measure going before voters.

Life Defense Fund is also seeking to ban Dakotans for Health and its workers from sponsoring or circulating petitions or doing ballot initiative committee work for four years.

South Dakota is one of four states – along with Colorado, Florida and Maryland – where measures to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution will come before voters in November. There are petition drives to add similar questions in seven more states.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the nationwide right to abortion two years ago, there have been seven statewide abortion-related ballot measures, and abortion rights advocates have prevailed on all of them.


Dura reported from Bismarck, North Dakota. Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this story from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.