Déjà Vu in South Dakota

Déjà Vu in South Dakota

It’s going to take a concerted national effort to defeat the state’s latest anti-choice ballot initiative.


It’s baaack. In 2006 South Dakota voters defeated, 56 to 44, a ballot initiative that would have banned abortion even to save the woman’s life. Prochoicers cautiously exhaled. Antichoicers got busy. Taking a leaf from polls that suggested a hefty majority would favor a ban as long as it included exceptions for drastic circumstances–rape, incest, the life or physical health of the woman–antichoicers have rolled out a new initiative, Measure 11. It contains loopholes, in theory, for rape and incest victims who report the crime to law enforcement and allow collection of their DNA and that of the fetus, as well as to women “at serious risk of a substantial and irreversible impairment of the functioning of a major bodily organ or system.” An ominous sign: it was submitted to the secretary of state on March 31 with 46,000 signatures, although only 16,000 were required.

In 2006 activists stressed the lack of exceptions–you’d force the woman to die? go blind? be paralyzed? bear her father’s baby? That argument was persuasive but left the vast majority of women who terminate their pregnancies undefended against the widespread belief that they were selfish sluts who used abortion “as birth control.” This is how short-term strategies come back to haunt us. There was always the risk that antichoicers would go for what they could get. As South Dakota’s own Leslee Unruh, colorful head of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, told the New York Times, “I have to save as many children as I can.”

With 44 percent of South Dakotans supporting the Let the Woman Die ban, what are the chances that the new, supposedly more lenient version will be defeated? Jan Nicolay, co-chair of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, the group formed to oppose the 2006 ban, told me voters will reject the ban when they realize its implications: forcing women to carry to term fetuses that cannot survive, tying doctors’ hands in difficult obstetrical situations, “revictimizing” rape and incest victims by destroying their privacy. Not necessarily, replied a prochoice activist who wished to remain anonymous: “To challenge the exceptions you have to get deep into the fine print. We can’t have a two-hour discussion with every voter in South Dakota.” She pinned her hopes on another popular strategy: appealing to the state’s libertarian streak. South Dakotans, I heard again and again, don’t like the government telling people what to do. But does that include women who have abortions–alternately depicted as tramps who waltz to the clinic after a night on the town and as naïve weaklings pushed into decisions they will later regret? Of the prochoice activists I spoke with, only Charon Asetoyer, a Native American community activist and health advocate running for State Senate, talked directly about organizing voters around the classic feminist theme of faith in women to make good decisions, to do what’s best for their families.

If “faith in women” sounds old-fashioned, maybe that’s the problem. In this fight, the antichoicers have the vision, the grassroots energy and the political momentum (as well as the Catholic and evangelical churches and key legislators in both parties), while the prochoicers are left with abstract arguments and the fall-back position that the ban, if passed, will be enjoined by the courts and eventually found unconstitutional. “This could be a galvanizing moment,” said one out-of-state activist. “It’s outrageous that a state could even be considering a ban! Instead of thinking about the Supreme Court, the national organizations–Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the ACLU–should be mobilizing women. I don’t hear anything creative coming from them.” Indeed, as of this writing I haven’t received so much as an e-mail about South Dakota from a national reproductive-rights or feminist organization.

Local activists may warn that Dakotans don’t take kindly to out-of-staters interfering, but defeating the ban is going to take millions–money that’s being swept up into the presidential race and other high-profile campaigns. NARAL’s puzzling, no-strings endorsement of Obama could not have come at a worse moment. Not only was it too late to matter, it needlessly infuriated the Clinton-favoring donor base and important state affiliates. Meanwhile, South Dakota NARAL’s operation consists of one paid staffer. No one I spoke with was surprised the ban is back. So why aren’t the big organizations better prepared for it?

“We had a very rich, substantive discussion of abortion here in 2006,” insists Sarah Stoesz, head of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. “By the end of that summer, a lot of prolifers were saying that they were still prolife but could see the complexity of the issue; they didn’t want to decide for another woman. People changed.” In this reddest of red states, where John Kerry got just 39 percent of the vote in 2004, could abortion be a way into a larger conversation? Stoesz thinks so. “We’ve been able to show that abortion is not an issue to shy away from but to embrace. In South Dakota the repro-rights movement is leading the progressive coalition.”

But come on, South Dakota, we can’t keep meeting like this! If enough progressive prochoicers could get elected to state offices, the political culture would start to change–and not just on abortion rights. A group called WomenRun! South Dakota is promoting a terrific group of Native American women candidates: Charon Asetoyer and Theresa Spry are running for the State Senate; Senator Theresa Two Bulls, the first Native American woman to serve in the Legislature, is facing a primary challenge; Diane Kastner, Lisa Cook and Caitlin Collier are running for House seats. While nationally the Democratic Party is welcoming antichoice conservative candidates, these women are committed to a broad progressive agenda on reproductive rights, education, healthcare, racial equality, economic development and local democracy. Read about them at www.womenrun.org, and make good use of the Donate button (checks can be mailed to WomenRun! SD, PO Box 2983, Minneapolis, MN 55402).

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