SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- South Dakota can require doctors to tell women who seek abortions that they have an "existing relationship" with their fetus that is protected by law and that they can't be forced to undergo the procedure, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier's ruling two years ago in which she struck down the requirement, which is part of a larger law requiring South Dakota doctors to provide women with certain information before an abortion can be deemed voluntary.
The law mandates that the doctor must tell an abortion seeker that she "has an existing relationship with that unborn human being and that the relationship enjoys protection under the United States Constitution and under the laws of South Dakota."
Schreier found the wording misleading because she said a relationship, in the eyes of the law, can only exist between people and the Supreme Court has ruled that the unborn are not legally considered people.
The appeals court disagreed with Schreier's reasoning, agreeing with the state's argument that doctors would be providing patients with valid legal advice – that they can't be compelled to have an abortion – allowing patients to make more informed decisions.
The court upheld Schreier's decision to overturn another aspect of the law that would have required doctors to tell patients that people who have abortions are more likely to commit suicide.
Both the state and Planned Parenthood, which challenged the law, praised Friday's ruling.
Mimi Liu, an attorney for Planned Parenthood, said the group believes the court has ruled that doctors must only inform patients of that one sentence written in the appeals court's decision.
"We think this decision can be read to say that is all that is required," she said.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said the decision will affect a separate lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood seeking to overturn a state law passed this year. That law, which has not taken effect because of the legal challenge, would require women to wait three days before they could have an abortion – the longest wait of any state – and submit to counseling at one of several centers that seek to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies.
"This decision will provide further guidance and direction with respect to Planned Parenthood's challenge to recent legislation which establishes procedures to ensure that abortion decisions are voluntary and un-coerced," Jackley said.
Liu said she believes both lawsuits are relevant to each other.
"The bottom line is that Planned Parenthood has a duty and has always been compliant to ensure that women are voluntarily seeking an abortion and making a decision to have an abortion, and are fully informed about the decision," she said.
Leslee Unruh, the founder of the Alpha Center pregnancy counseling center in Sioux Falls, which seeks to persuade women not to seek abortions, called Friday's court's decision regarding the existing relationship advisory "monumental."
"We are thrilled beyond words," she said. "This has been a very long and coming victory for us. We are so happy about this ruling. It just shows the tide has turned in this country and we need to protect unborn children, as well as the women in making that decision."
South Dakota voters rejected statewide ballot measures in 2006 and 2008 that would have banned most abortions in the state, measures that sought to provoke a court challenge of Roe v. Wade.