SIOUX FALLS, S.D., Feb 23 (Reuters) South Dakota became the first U.S. state to pass a law banning abortion in virtually all cases, with the intention of forcing the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1973 decision legalizing the procedure.
The law, which would punish doctors who perform the operation with a five-year prison term and a 5,000 dollar fine, awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Michael Rounds and people on both sides of the issue say he is unlikely to veto it.
''My understanding is we are the first state to truly defy Roe v. Wade,'' the 1973 high court ruling that granted a constitutional right to abortion, said Kate Looby of Planned Parenthood's South Dakota chapter.
State legislatures in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky also have introduced similar measures this year, but South Dakota's legislative calendar means its law is likely to be enacted first.
''We hope (Rounds) recognizes this for what it is: a political tool and not about the health and safety of the women of South Dakota,'' Looby said yesterday.
''If he chooses to sign it, we will be filing a lawsuit in short order to block it,'' she said after attending the afternoon debate at the state capital in Pierre.
Proponents have said the law was designed for just such a court challenge.
The timing is right, supporters say, given the recent appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the high court. The two conservatives could pave the way to a decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
The high court said on Tuesday it will rule on whether the federal government can ban some abortion procedures, a case that could reveal whether the court reshaped by President George W. Bush will restrict abortion rights.
In 1992, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the last direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.
The South Dakota law concludes that life begins at conception based on medical advances over the past three decades.
Proposed amendments to the law to create exceptions to specifically protect the health of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest, were voted down. Also defeated was an amendment to put the proposal in the hands of voters.
The bill as written does make an exception if the fetus dies during a doctor's attempt to save the mother's life.
Planned Parenthood operates the sole clinic in South Dakota where roughly 800 abortions are performed each year by doctors from neighboring Minnesota, Looby said.
Two years ago, Rounds vetoed a similar bill, saying it would wipe out existing restrictions on abortion while it was fought in the courts. A rewritten bill lost narrowly in the state Senate.
Some legislators opposed to abortion rights questioned whether it was premature to challenge Roe v. Wade, and said litigation would prove expensive for the sparsely populated state. An anonymous donor has offered million to the state to defray the costs of litigation.
REUTERS RL BS026