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The Daily Need

Furor erupts over S.D. bill that would make killing to defend fetus a ‘justifiable homicide’

Protesters demonstrate in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D. in 2006 over a bill that would have restricted access to abortion. Photo: AP/Nati Harnik

Update | Feb. 22 South Dakota State Rep. Marc Feinstein, a Democrat, said the measure had been tabled and “effectively killed” over the weekend, “much to the chagrin of opponents,” who had been hoping for a floor debate and a chance to defeat the bill in a vote.

Updated | Feb. 15 | 4:55 p.m. A bill in South Dakota that would make killing in defense of a fetus a “justifiable homicide” is set to face a vote on the floor of the state House of Representatives Wednesday, and lawmakers who oppose the measure say it is likely to pass.

The vote was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed because of “an anticipated lengthy debate,” according to State Rep. Marc Feinstein.

The bill would expand the definition of the state’s “justifiable homicide” law to include acts intended to prevent harm to a fetus, which has prompted fears among pro-choice advocates that the measure could incite and perhaps even legalize violence against abortion providers.

The bill was passed out of a House committee last week by a vote of 9 to 3. In an interview with Need to Know, State Rep. Kevin Killer, a Democrat and one of the three members of the committee to vote against the measure, said the bill was scheduled for a vote by the entire House and that he expected it to pass, “much to my dismay.”

Feinstein, another of the Democrats who voted against the bill in committee, said in an interview from the House chamber that the law was superfluous given the protections that already exist for acts of self-defense in the state’s criminal code. Feinstein said the measure was “overstepping reasonableness.”

“I think what you really have to look at is, What is the hidden intent here?” Feinstein said. “And I think the hidden intent is anti-abortion.”

Republican lawmakers were in a caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon and several of them did not return calls for comment.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican State Rep. Phil Jensen, defended the bill in an interview with The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent earlier today, denying that it would make violence against abortion providers legal. Jensen said he was simply attempting to bring “consistency” to South Dakota’s criminal code, which allows people who commit crimes that result in the death of a fetus to be charged with manslaughter. Because abortion is currently not a crime, Jensen told Sargent, the “justifiable homicide” law would not apply. “This has nothing to do with abortion,” Jensen said.

Killer, however, disagreed. “The language and the intent of the bill alone, I think, is kind of a counter-argument to that,” Killer said.

He added that the bill might even apply to doctors who simply recommend abortion as a viable option, not just medical professionals who actually carry out the abortions themselves. “If you wanted to take up some kind of action against a doctor who’s giving you an opinion on something, that you might disagree with,” Killer said, Jensen’s “justifiable homicide” law might apply.

Mostly, Killer said, the bill was designed to make access to abortion — which is already scarce in South Dakota — even more limited, by intimidating abortion providers. “At the heart of it, I think that’s what it is,” Killer said.

Feinstein noted that South Dakota voters had twice rejected laws that would restrict access to abortion, in popular votes in 2006 and 2008. Bills like the one proposed by Jensen, he said, were simply attempts by the powerful “no-choice” movement, as he called it, to further advance their agenda.

“There’s a very strong no-choice movement in the state of South Dakota. They have been supported by a considerable amount of faith-based money,” Feinstein said. “And they’ve just become more powerful.”

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