For more than thirty years, opposition to legal abortion has nourished right-wing politics at the grassroots. The right, you see, never got the memo about abortion being a trivial “cultural” issue, or the one about how a strong uncompromising position would alienate potential recruits. Liberals got those memos. Liberals got other ones too, and not just on abortion: Don’t bother with small rural conservative states. Build big top-down Beltway organizations that don’t give members much to do except send money and e-mail their Representatives. Focus on the national picture–the White House, Congress and, above all, the courts.

The result of those unfortunate priorities is on flaming display in South Dakota, where in February the State Legislature passed a ban on abortion that criminalized the practice for any reason but to save the woman’s life–no exception for rape, incest, health or fetal anomaly, even those incompatible with life, like anencephaly, in which most or all of the fetus’s brain is missing. Showing the strength of antichoice sentiment, Republican Governor Mike Rounds, who in 2004 had vetoed a similar bill, signed this one. The state’s largest newspaper, the Argus Leader, announced in an awkward editorial statement that it would take no position on the ban. Given that this was probably the only chance editorial board members will ever have to stand in the national spotlight, you know that had to hurt.

Bitter jokes about Jesusland flew around the East and West coasts; some even muttered about boycotting the state. (Take that, Mount Rushmore! And Fluffy, no more Iams for you!) But then a funny thing happened. South Dakotans got busy. Instead of challenging the ban in court, prochoicers decided to challenge it in the voting booth. Relying entirely on volunteers, the bipartisan South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families got more than 38,000 signatures for its petition to place a ban-repeal referendum on the November ballot–twice as many names as required, from every county in the state, and a month ahead of the filing deadline. You may have read of Cecilia Fire Thunder, president of the Pine Ridge Reservation, who got quite a bit of media and blog attention after she said she would consider putting a clinic on the reservation if the ban took effect. But did you know that, spurred by the ban, an unprecedented number of Native American women–Charon Asetoyer, Faith Spotted Eagle, Theresa Spry, Paula Long Fox, Diane Kastner–ran for state and local offices in the June 6 primary? All were progressive, all prochoice.

So far results are decidedly mixed. In a move that was probably more about tribal politics than abortion, Fire Thunder was suspended by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, which passed a measure banning abortion on the reservation. Asetoyer and Spotted Eagle lost their races. But Spry and Kastner won, and so did Long Fox–by two votes. Despite the high stakes, turnout was low. One can’t help wondering what would have happened if the state Democratic Party had put some energy into getting out the vote (state chair Judy Olson Duhamel wasn’t even in South Dakota on primary day; she’d gone to Washington). Still, when I spoke with Asetoyer by phone, she was upbeat, citing the election of Sharon Drapeau, a Yankton Sioux, to the Charles Mix County Commission. “It took two defeats and a federal civil rights suit, but she finally won, and she’ll make a big difference. And next time Native Americans will say, We can do this!”

Antichoicers are hardly quaking in their boots. Four Republican legislators who had voted against the ban were defeated in the primaries by pro-ban challengers. No pro-ban incumbents lost their races–not even State Senator Bill Napoli, best known for his speculations on the sort of woman who might successfully invoke the life exception: “A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.” Where to begin? Theresa Spry, who will be taking him on in November, has her work cut out for her.

Going the electoral route is risky, to be sure. It will take lots of people power and lots of tact: “It’s best to meet people where they are,” says Sarah Stoesz, head of the local Planned Parenthood affiliate. “In South Dakota it will come down to fairness for rape and incest victims, to the health issues and to families’ right to make their own decisions.” A loss in South Dakota would embolden antichoicers everywhere (not that they’re shy right now: Louisiana just passed a “trigger ban,” which would outlaw abortion immediately if Roe is overturned, and Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, has vowed to sign it; twelve other states are considering bans of their own). But success would be a powerful statement about the limits of antichoice politics. Equally important, the campaign for the referendum, and for prochoice candidates, offers a rare opportunity to change the political discourse in South Dakota. “Sometimes it takes something of great magnitude to get people excited,” says Jan Nicolay, co-chair of Healthy Families. As Sarah Stoesz puts it, “You can’t build a movement around a lawsuit.” Far from being a drag on the progressive movement, reproductive rights can be its catalyst.

Grassroots activism is expensive, and time is short. Send a check to South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, PO Box 1484, Sioux Falls, SD 57101-1484 ( Support progressive women candidates by donating to Women Run! South Dakota, PO Box 2983, Minneapolis, MN 55402-2983 (

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Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time is a new collection of my Nation columns, just out from Random House. It’s a very affordable paperback original with a ferocious red, black and white cover and no publicity budget, which is why I’m telling you this.