Legislator tables own bill that would define ‘life of mother’ during abortion

Bill would have clarified when abortion is legal

By: - February 7, 2023 5:24 pm
Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, R-Sioux Falls. (Courtesy of Taylor Rehfeldt)

Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, R-Sioux Falls. (Courtesy of Taylor Rehfeldt)

Taylor Rehfeldt wakes up afraid for herself, her unborn child and her family every morning.

The registered nurse and Republican state representative from Sioux Falls is four months into a high risk pregnancy. She’s excited to welcome her third child, but also worried about current South Dakota law.

After suffering a stroke in 2014, Rehfeldt has an elevated risk of blood clots while pregnant. She is taking precautions to keep both herself and her child healthy until delivery, but state law is vague about when and how a doctor should intervene if something life-threatening occurs.

“I wake up fearful of my pregnancy and what it would mean for my children, my husband and my parents if something happened to me and the doctor could not perform life saving measures,” Rehfeldt said in tearful testimony during Tuesday’s House Health and Human Services Committee hearing at the Capitol in Pierre.

Current state law says abortion is only legal when “there is appropriate and reasonable medical judgment that performance of an abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant female.”

Rehfeldt, the assistant House majority leader, is the prime sponsor of HB 1169, which would further define the “life of the pregnant female” exception. The bill would allow abortions when a physician determines that continuing the pregnancy would put the mother at serious risk of death or “of a substantial and irreversible physical impairment of one or more major bodily functions.” The bill would also instruct physicians to submit abortion information to the state Department of Health.

But Rehfeldt requested the committee table her bill after her testimony. Since introducing the bill, it became more “contentious” than she’d anticipated, and she didn’t believe the bill would have enough support to make it through the Legislature.

Wave of unanticipated opposition

Rehfeldt told South Dakota Searchlight she didn’t want to bring the bill through the legislative process if she didn’t believe it could become law.

But she vowed to keep trying.

“I’m not giving up on this. I’m not going to let it go, and I’ll continue to work on this,” Rehfeldt told South Dakota Searchlight. “This puts more of a fire on me to continue to have these conversations.”

She heard from legislators who opposed the bill because they view it as an expansion of South Dakota’s trigger law. That law took effect when the U.S. Supreme Court determined in June that abortion policy should be returned to the states, overturning 50 years of federal abortion rights under the Roe v. Wade decision. The trigger law does not include exceptions for rape or incest.

I would have never thought the idea of preserving the life of the mother would be debatable or even considered not pro-life by some. Who could think that being pro-life could mean we do not protect women?

– Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, R-Sioux Falls

Rehfeldt said she’d worked on multiple amendments in conjunction with the anti-abortion group South Dakota Right to Life, but the group informed her Monday that it was opposing the bill.

The lobbying group is one of the strongest in Pierre. It helped defeat Gov. Kristi Noem’s six-week abortion ban during the last legislative session.

“They’re very powerful and rightfully so,” 2022 House Majority Leader Kent Peterson, R-Salem, told SDPB last year. “They’re a very strong organization and people respect their opinion on all matters that they weigh in on.”

Right to Life Executive Director Dale Bartscher said he would not comment on HB 1169 since it was tabled.

Rehfeldt plans to continue working on the bill over the summer.

“I would have never thought the idea of preserving the life of the mother would be debatable or even considered not pro-life by some,” Rehfeldt testified. “Who could think that being pro-life could mean we do not protect women?”

‘A doctor’s oath is to protect both’

Rehfeldt constructed the bill with Sens. Erin Tobin, R-Winner, and Sydney Davis, R-Burbank, after health care practitioners requested greater clarification of when abortions would be legal in South Dakota. Tobin and Davis are also registered nurses.

“Most physicians are fearful — rightfully so since it would be classified as a Class 6 felony if they act outside of the interpreted meaning of that sentence,” Rehfeldt said.

As the law stands now, Rehfeldt doesn’t know when her doctor can intervene. 

“We are not willing to provide clarification for doctors who are caring for the lives of not just one but two patients,” Rehfeldt testified. “I think some people have lost touch with the reality that in a pregnancy, there are two patients. Both a mom and a baby. A doctor’s oath is to protect both.”

South Dakota should not have laws in place that are unclear to doctors, she added.

“No one wants to talk about a woman bleeding from pregnancy. No one wants to talk about an infection that threatens her life,” Rehfeldt said. “No one wants to talk about a case like mine, where I could have a clot that makes me disabled.”

Rehfeldt tells South Dakotans to talk to physicians, legislators

Rehfeldt plans to have conversations with legislators and the public in the next year to educate them about the complexities of pregnancy in health care, why these aren’t “always black and white decisions,” and “how life means something different to many different people.”

Rehfeldt urges pregnant South Dakotans or those who could become pregnant to have conversations with their health care providers about what the current law means for them as a patient, and how their provider interprets the law.

She also urged women to call their legislators and share their stories.

“Health care providers can only talk in general terms because they need to maintain patient privacy,” Rehfeldt said. “We need people to tell their stories and need to be heard, or it’s going to be difficult to get these issues addressed.”




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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.