SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota (Reuters) - South Dakota will debate a proposed law on Tuesday that supporters say would protect pregnant women from attack and critics fear could legalize the killing of abortion providers in the state.
The bill, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, was introduced in late January by Phil Jensen, a Republican legislator from Rapid City.
If passed, it would provide protection to a family member who kills "in the lawful defense of ... his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person" by defining the killing as a justifiable homicide.
The bill is expected to come up for debate on the floor of the South Dakota House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon and Jensen said he is expecting amendments from opponents.
Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-choice group that has been tracking state abortion laws since the early 1970s, said, the proposed law was the first of its kind.
"We have not seen anything like this before," Nash said. "It's really chilling."
Jensen insisted the bill "has nothing to do with abortion" and would merely bar prosecutors from pressing charges against a family member who kills an assailant attacking a pregnant relative.
"Let's say an ex-boyfriend finds out his ex-girlfriend is pregnant with his baby and decides to beat on her abdomen to kill the unborn child," Jensen said. "This is an illegal act and the purpose of this bill is to bring continuity to South Dakota code as it relates to the unborn child."
But Alisha Sedor, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota, a group that supports a woman's right to abortion, said she was worried the legislation could trigger attacks on abortion providers if it was not amended.
"I don't believe the intent is malicious," Sedor said. "But the potential legal implications of the bill are what make it dangerous. If it passes without an amendment exempting attacks on providers, it could incite violence from individuals who believe their actions will be found justifiable in court."
South Dakota has been at the center of some of the most bitter recent fights between supporters and opponents of abortion, which was legalized in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.
In both 2006 and 2008, state legislators passed laws banning most abortions unless they were necessary to save a woman's life. In both cases, the laws were subsequently overturned by the state's voters at the polls.