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MERCER: State's Right to Life signs a new director

PIERRE — Dale Bartscher pulled over to take a reporter's call about joining South Dakota Right to Life as executive director.

He officially starts Sept. 16 but already spent hours getting the Rapid City office ready.

Bartscher, 64, was state political director of the Jackley for Governor campaign. Before that, he was executive director for the Family Heritage Alliance since 2010.

He sounded enthusiastic Wednesday about a calling he's felt for more than 40 years. "They're not just pro-life, they're whole life," he said.

South Dakota Right to Life, whose statewide convention is Sept. 22 at St. George Center in Hartford, works with state legislators regardless of political party. Each lawmaker is graded on measures most important to the organization. Of 104, only 15 got a mark less than an A or a B for the past two sessions.

The two major parties approved their statewide platforms in June. Republicans opposed abortion: "Individuals, including the unborn, have the intrinsic right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Democrats want women to be able to choose whether to have their unborn children: "The belief that every woman has the right to make her own medical decisions."

Twelve years ago, a majority of voters rejected the Legislature's decision to ban most abortions. The 2006 general election results were 148,648 yes and 185,945 no. Abortion opponents tried again in 2008, but a majority of voters again turned them down, with 167,560 yes and 206,535 no.

Voter registration as of Sept. 4 stood at 253,008 Republicans; 156,727 Democrats; 123,616 independents; and some 3,000 others.

The Planned Parenthood clinic at Sioux Falls is the only place in South Dakota that acknowledges providing abortion services. The clinic distributes abortion pills and performs abortions.

The state Health Department compiles abortion statistics each year. There were 472 performed in South Dakota in 2016 and 444 in 2015.

Those data include residents and non-residents. They were the lowest totals reported for South Dakota since the U.S. Supreme Court decided abortion was legal in 1973. South Dakota abortions peaked at more than 1,600 annually in the early 1980s.

For decades, South Dakota lawmakers gradually restrained availability of abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a group that backs abortion rights: "A woman must receive state-directed counseling that includes information designed to discourage her from having an abortion, and then wait 72 hours before the procedure is provided, thereby necessitating two trips to the facility. The 72 hour waiting period does not include weekends or annual holidays."

There's also a 2005 state law: Effective "on the date that the states are recognized by the United States Supreme Court to have the authority to prohibit abortion at all stages of pregnancy," performing or assisting an abortion becomes a felony crime, except to preserve the pregnant female's life.

Bartscher credited work by groups such as pregnancy crisis centers, Concerned Women of America and Family Heritage Alliance.

"It takes work to keep it a pro-life state," he said.