Between the Lines

For years, I always thought of the annual legislative session in Pierre as something wholesome, sort of like the county fair when we I was a kid.

People got together, enjoyed each other�s company, showed off a some of things they accomplished during the summer, worked hard, but had time for a bit of fun, too.

Maybe it�s because the challenges just seem to be bit more serious each year. Money is tight. Budgets are strained. Legislators are struggling to make it all add up, while the folks that stop to watch the whole show in Pierre or visit personally with lawmakers approach with a bit of confusion rather than wonder.

In recent years, South Dakota�s legislative sessions seem to come up with embarrassing and downright uncomfortable surprises. It is reminiscent of the time when my brothers and I, in our first year of 4-H, explored a part of the county fair we didn�t know existed.

It was in the Midway. If you walked far enough, beyond the rides and the shooting galleries and other things designed to take money from your wallet (another analogy fitting for this legislative session) you would encounter what my brothers and I coined as simply �The Bizarre.�

A barker yelled into his microphone, imploring us all to step right up and pay admission to see a woman, allegedly in a cage, who had been captured in the Amazon. If we bought a ticket, went into a tent and sat down, she would come out, the barker claimed, and turn into a gorilla.

You know, stuff like that. One booth, we were assured, housed a real live dinosaur captured in some remote part of Africa. For $1.50 we could see it for ourselves.

There were other oddities that we all could be exposed to as we wandered in The Bizarre. Since my brothers and I all knew it was all fake, and since we had pledged that what little money we possessed was going to be spent wisely (the Tilt-O-Whirl rocks!) we ignored the admonitions of the loud salespersons, practically taunting us to believe in them and their shady offerings.

The Bizarre was the one part of the fair we chose to avoid. It was easy to do this; the premise behind everything offered in that seedy part of the midway rested solely on 1) Getting your attention in a somewhat flashy way that couldn�t be avoided, so that 2) The pitchmen could take advantage of one�s ignorance.

So, this week, while it would be nice to be able report that something substantial has occurred in Pierre to assure that our state will have a balanced budget in 2012, we instead find this headline splashed all across the local news (imagine a carnival barker shouting this to you): South Dakota Bill Would Make Killing An Abortion Provider �Justifiable Homicide.�

Last year, our lawmakers got temporarily sidetracked with a resolution claiming that global warming was due, in part, to �astrological phenomenem.�

This year, our attention is diverted from the true spirit of this year�s legislative session by a bill that, some say, may actually make something as bizarre as killing an abortion provider �justifiable homicide.�

HB 1171, which has reportedly been �hoghoused� significantly, meaning it�s been changed and re-changed during committee debate, would, if passed and signed by the governor broaden the legal definition of �justifiable homicide� to include murders done to prevent harm to a fetus � like abortion, according to some people�s interpretation. Reproductive rights advocates believe it is a way to legalize the killing of abortion providers.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Jensen, would expand South Dakota�s legal definition of justifiable homicide to include murder enacted �while resisting an attempt to harm� an unborn fetus.

This bill has accomplished one thing, for certain. South Dakota is now in the national spotlight. Greg Sargent at The Washington Post spoke with Rep. Jensen, who did his best to not reveal, perhaps, his true intentions when he sponsored this legislation.

Jensen maintained that the bill would only justify the killing of abortion providers if abortion were criminalized in South Dakota, because then the person killing the fetus-harmer would be justified in preventing an illegal act. �It would (apply to abortion providers) if abortion was illegal,� Jensen told Sargent. �This code only deals with illegal acts. Abortion is legal in this country. This has nothing to do with abortion.� (�In other words,� Sargent wrote, �since abortion is not �homicide,� the law could not apply.�)

What Jensen and other state lawmakers have apparently failed to realize is that murdering a pregnant woman would already count as two crimes in our state (her murder, plus �fetal homicide�) under South Dakota law. This attempt to fix what apparently isn�t broken has skeptical people across the nation wondering why Jensen sponsored this bill in the first place. The fact that he says that is has �nothing to do with abortion� only makes one naturally conclude that, well, yeah, it has everything to do with abortion.

In other words, this year lawmakers have managed to waste their precious time. Again. And paint our state in, if not unflattering, at least a questionable light, a garish sort of color that the nation can�t seem to ignore right now.

It�s time to move on, to ignore the man with the bullhorn, imploring you to step right up.

It�s time to leave The Bizarre and get back to being productive in Pierre. And who knows? Maybe legislators and the people they serve will find, once again, that the process can be fun.

But for those who long for the unseemly, carnie-like atmosphere that appears to emerge too frequently in the state capitol building, not all is lost.

They can always talk to the people who think that requiring all South Dakotans to purchase a gun is a good idea.

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