SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The small sign outside the Alpha Center in Sioux Falls quietly announces a roster of available services: "Free pregnancy tests, abortion information, STD testing."
Inside the brick building, women can get a free ultrasound and hear about birth programs. But if you're a woman looking for help finding a legal abortion, you've come to the wrong place. Nowhere within this crisis pregnancy center will a visitor find help getting an abortion, in part because a new restrictive state law would such referrals illegal.
The center that says its goal is to counsel and educate pregnant women is one of three statewide that have signed up so far to be a required stop for those seeking an abortion if South Dakota's new abortion law survives legal challenges.
The state's new law requires women seeking abortions to first participate in one free counseling session at a pregnancy help center, defined as an organization that does not offer abortion referrals but works "to educate, counsel and otherwise assist women (to keep) their relationship with their unborn children." The centers would determine whether a woman is being pressured to have an abortion, and provide information to help her give birth and keep a child.
The law also establishes the nation's longest waiting period at three days by prohibiting an abortion from being performed until 72 hours after a woman meets with an abortion clinic doctor. The doctor ultimately would determine whether she is being coerced.
Supporters say the law was necessary because many women are pressured to seek abortions by husbands, boyfriends or relatives. Alpha Center founder Leslee Unruh said about half the women who visit her facility face such pressure.
But abortion rights supporters say no other state has such stringent counseling requirements and the law encourages coercion against abortion and amounts to yet another obstacle to obtaining a legal abortion.
"Of course, we feel giving her child life is a better experience than having an abortion," said Unruh, who had an abortion for medical reasons more than three decades ago but since founding the Alpha Center in 1984 has become one of South Dakota's leading anti-abortion campaigners.
Abortion-rights supporters filed a federal lawsuit in late May to block the new law from taking effect July 1, claiming it interferes with the legal right to abortion established in the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. A hearing is scheduled Monday in Sioux Falls on a request to suspend the law while it's being challenged.
Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center, located about 400 miles west in Rapid City, and Bella Pregnancy Resource Center in Spearfish, are the state's only other registered facilities, though state officials expect more will sign up after the law takes effect. All three pregnancy centers are private, nonprofit organizations. Unruh said Alpha Center is reliant on private donations and, according to federal tax records, was armed in recent years with an annual budget ranging between $700,000 and $1 million.
Critics say the new law will force mostly low-income women to make long, costly journeys to receive required counseling. Advocates say that's folly because the Sioux Falls and Rapid City centers are located in the state's two most populated cities.
Unruh says she's ready to take her center's services on the road if necessary, armed with Alpha Center's "Fleet for Little Feet" — a motor home that's been converted into a mobile medical and counseling operation.
Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research organization that supports abortion rights, said the law "really makes a mockery of informed consent."
Women who get counseling under the law will only be getting part of the story, said Nash, a public policy associate.
"It'll all be designed to steer her in one direction, which is to continue her pregnancy," Nash said.
Alpha Center is South Dakota's best-known crisis pregnancy center, mostly because of Unruh, who said she changed her position on the issue after her young son picked up a doll showing a three-month-old fetus at a Right to Life booth and said, "baby." Since then, she has taken prominent roles in every recent attempt to ban or restrict abortion in South Dakota.
Unruh said Alpha Center counselors don't pressure women to avoid abortion. She said they simply give women information about fetal development, offer an ultrasound and provide information about medical, financial and other services that can help them keep their babies or give them up for adoption,.
"It's not like we as counselors are saying: 'She still wants an abortion so now I have to talk her out of it.' It's really her decision," Unruh said.
Kathi Di Nicola of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, which operates South Dakota's only abortion clinic in Sioux Falls, disagrees with Unruh.
"The stated mission of a crisis pregnancy center is to dissuade a woman from seeking abortion care," Di Nicola said.
The new law provides little detailed guidance on how counseling sessions would be conducted. The Alpha Center declined a request by The Associated Press to interview counselors or see guidelines for counseling sessions, citing its intention to join the legal defense of the counseling law.
But during a facility tour, Unruh described staff procedures. In a room where ultrasounds are done, posters around the examination table show paintings of fetuses and describe what a fetus can do at various stages of development.
Unruh said a counseling session mostly deals with finding solutions to problems faced by pregnant women. A counselor can refer women to services that help them find or keep jobs, get back into school or get free medical care, she said. Women also can talk to others who've had abortions.
A woman who chooses to give birth can visit the center's Baby Closet to get diapers, baby clothing and other items — a privilege earned by going to school, getting a job, performing community service or meeting other goals.
Alpha Center's website leaves little doubt about its mission: prevent abortions and help women give birth.
A fund-raising page tells about a woman identified only as Kari who visited Alpha Center after she had scheduled an appointment to get an abortion at the Planned Parenthood clinic.
"Every day, because of your support, we have the privilege of not only helping to save God's precious little babies, but to save their mothers as well," according to the fundraising pitch signed by Unruh.
Alpha Center: http://www.alphacenter.org/
Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center: http://www.carenetprc.com/
Bella Pregnancy Resource Center: http://www.bellapregnancy.com/
Planned Parenthood: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/mn-nd-sd/