Proposal would clarify health-related abortion exception in South Dakota law

Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, a Republican from Sioux Falls, said conversations with doctors convinced her the current "life of the pregnant female" exception was too vague.

Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, a Sioux Falls Republican and the assistant majority leader in the House, speaks during a news conference on Jan. 26, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — Clarification for how and when doctors can treat a mother with complications that arise during pregnancy could be coming to South Dakota’s abortion law.

The text of the state’s current abortion law, which took effect last June after the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, gives just one exception where performing an abortion is legal, when “there is appropriate and reasonable medical judgment” that the procedure “is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant female.”

However, during a press conference by Republican leadership on Jan. 26, Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, a Republican from Sioux Falls and the assistant majority leader in the House, said that discussions with doctors had indicated that the statute was too vague in its description of an allowable exception.

“The [current trigger law] talks about just the life of the mother,” Rehfeldt explained while laying out the reasoning behind the bill. “There is no definition currently about what that means. And so healthcare providers are a little bit confused and need some clarification about how we can best care for moms.”

Later that same day, Rehfeldt entered into the public record House Bill 1069, which clarifies the current law’s exception — “the attending physician, exercising reasonable medical judgment, must determine that, by continuing the pregnancy, the female is at serious risk of death or of a substantial and irreversible physical impairment of one or more major bodily functions.”


The bill carries one other sponsor, Sen. Erin Tobin, a Republican from Winner.

Rehfeldt added that part of the reasoning behind the bill was her own experience having two children as a “high-risk” mother.

“I know what it's like to be one of those mothers. And so what our caucus desires is to really understand and have compassion and empathy for moms and prioritize both moms and babies as we go forward,” Rehfeldt said. “And that's what this bill is about.”

On top of clarifying when an abortion is allowed, the bill requires the attending physician to fill out a report including the condition that required an abortion and the gestational age of the fetus.

Responding to the announcement by Rehfeldt, Rep. Erin Healy, a Democrat from Sioux Falls, described conversations with women in her life who had faced health complications during pregnancy and were affected by the legal vagueries currently in place.

“They were dealing with physicians who felt like they needed to jump through hoops in order to give them the care that they needed,” Healy said. “And that's just unacceptable.”

However, she added that discussing small carve-outs rather than an overall change to the state’s abortion policy was still a violation of individual privacy and the doctor-patient relationship.

“Democrats really believe that there shouldn't be just exceptions, that abortion should be an option for women, and that bodily autonomy is important,” Healy said.


Beyond clarifying the health exceptions that can surround a legal abortion in the state, Rehfeldt said conversations around other carve-outs, including those allowing exceptions around pregnancies that come from rape or incest, have been ongoing, although no legislation in that vein from the Republican caucus was imminent.

Rehfeldt’s bill was assigned to the House Health and Human Services committee, where it should be heard in the coming week.

"Only time will tell if it was a wise decision to spend these additional dollars," she wrote in a letter to lawmakers, referencing about $87 million in spending above her recommended budget.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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