The South Dakota Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would change requirements for crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) wishing to be registered by the state as “pregnancy help centers”; under a 2011 law, women in the state must obtain counseling from a pregnancy help center before obtaining an abortion. (That law is currently in litigation, and has been blocked by the courts.)
Under the current law, to be eligible as a pregnancy help center, CPCs must not perform or have any affiliation with any physician or organization that provides
abortions. The new bill, HB 1180, would mandate that eligible CPCs also cannot “place children for adoption,” either directly or indirectly, such as by referring women to outside agencies that handle adoptions.
Of the more than a dozen CPCs in the state, there are only two registered as pregnancy help centers
with the South Dakota Department of Health: the Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center in Rapid City and the Alpha Center in Sioux Falls. The Care Net center is part of a network of affiliated CPCs that identify as “faith-based organizations,” while the Alpha Center is independently owned and located a few miles from the state’s lone abortion provider. In 1984, the Alpha Center’s founder, Leslee Unruh, was investigated by the state attorney’s office because of complaints that “Unruh had offered young women money to carry their pregnancies to term and then relinquish their babies for adoption,” as Kathryn Joyce reported in 2009.
Both CPCs currently refer women to outside agencies for adoptions.
Abbie Peterson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota, which opposes the bill, told RH Reality Check over email that the bill “is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“Currently in order to qualify as a [pregnancy help center] in South Dakota, the facility cannot perform abortion, refer for abortion, have any affiliation with an organization or physician that performs or refers for abortion and have not referred any pregnant woman for an abortion at any time in the previous three years. Women are already being denied information about abortion services,” she said. “HB 1180 further restricts information by prohibiting facilities that offer adoption services from becoming [pregnancy help centers]. Women facing an unintended pregnancy need to be presented comprehensive information on every option, including abortion and adoption.”
During the committee hearing on HB 1180, Debbie Pease, a lobbyist representing South Dakota Right to Life, testified in favor of the bill, saying it would strengthen the 2011 law by removing potential conflicts of interest.
Rep. Scott Ecklund (R-Brandon), an obstetrician who has practiced medicine in Sioux Falls for two decades and a sponsor of the bill, gave testimony to both the house and senate committees. During the house hearing, Ecklund said that the bill was designed to make CPCs “more of a neutral place” and provide “a safe haven for objective counseling free of conflict.”
While answering question from the committee, Ecklund said that he had spoken to representatives at Catholic Family Services (CFS), which operates CPCs and adoption agencies in six locations in the state, and the group supports the bill. According to Ecklund, the Alpha Center, which has received financial contributions from CFS, also supports the bill. Ecklund was a sponsor of the Alpha Center’s annual Purity Ball in 2012.
Ecklund said that under the new legislation, if the two already registered pregnancy help centers in the state don’t change how they operate in relation to adoption, they will lose their pregnancy help center status. “The ones that I have spoken to are OK with that,” said Ecklund. ”That’s not to say that they will continue to provide adoption through other means, but that they would have set up another counseling service.”
Rep. Paula Hawks (D-Hartford), a member of the Health and Human Services Committee who questioned Ecklund, told RH Reality Check that committee members were told “over and over again” during the hearing that the bill would make state-required counseling “fair and equitable.”
“You can’t be an organization that refers for abortion, and you can’t be a place that refers for adoption. Let’s just take care of these ladies, and let’s offer the options,” said Ecklund during the hearing.
“If we’re not talking about abortions, and we’re not talking about adoption, then what is the point of having a crisis pregnancy center?” said Hawks.
“That’s really what women are looking for,” she said. “Advice about what can [the centers] do and what kind of help they can provide.”
HB 1180 passed the state senate Tuesday with a 26-9 vote, mostly along party lines. The bill now moves to the desk of Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard for signature or veto.