Reproductive Rights on the Line in South Dakota

Reproductive Rights on the Line in South Dakota

Reproductive Rights on the Line in South Dakota

An initiative that seeks to overturn South Dakota’s draconian ban on abortion will have implications in states across the country.


We’ve heard a lot this campaign cycle about Democrats making this a “national election.” About Republicans’ incompetent mishandling of Katrina, the Administration’s continued dishonesty about Iraq and now the arrogance of leadership highlighted by the Foley affair. We’ve heard weekly horse-race updates about who will control Congress in January.

What we haven’t heard much about is abortion.

But this election cycle, we also face a national right-wing effort to turn the clock back on reproductive rights, using the same brew of bad science, misleading “facts” and paternalistic attitudes toward Americans–in this case, women–that we’ve seen for the last five years.

South Dakota, where earlier this year the legislature passed an abortion ban so restrictive it makes even pre-Roe v. Wade laws seem enlightened, is the epicenter of this effort. The law provides no exceptions: not for rape, not for incest, not in cases of severe fetal abnormality, not even to protect the woman’s health. Doctors can be charged with a felony and be sentenced to five years in prison just for doing what medical training and ethics demand of them: referring a pregnant woman for a health-saving abortion.

I have written a great deal about my own story: how before Roe v. Wade, as a mother of three, abandoned by my husband and pregnant, I made the difficult, personal decision to have an abortion. What happens to that woman today? What about the mother and wife who is diagnosed with cancer while she is pregnant? What about the daughter or sister who is raped?

A broad coalition of doctors, teachers, ministers, homemakers, local and national leaders has come together to oppose this ban. They forced it onto the November ballot and, despite an ocean of right-wing money pouring in, are within striking distance of seeing the ban rejected.

South Dakota abortion-ban organizers have made their case using antiquated ideas about women and flat-out lies about science and medicine. They ignore every consensus of the scientific community to argue that abortion causes abnormal rates of breast cancer, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

But what ought to be more frightening for women everywhere is the foundation on which they base those arguments: Women, they say, are incapable of making a rational decision to terminate a pregnancy, because it is in women’s “nature” to care for children. Antiabortion laws, therefore, are “protecting women’s rights” from predatory husbands, boyfriends and abortion providers. Yale Law School professor Riva Siegel has documented how antiabortion activists hope to use this rhetorical frame to “take back” the words “freedom” and “choice,” in the process taking back more than a century of struggle to establish women as rational, thoughtful actors capable of making moral choices on our own behalf.

The worst mistake progressives can make is to assume either that this terrible law will fall of its own weight or that it is an isolated case that needn’t worry the rest of the nation. More than a dozen other state legislatures, including Ohio and Missouri, have similarly draconian legislature pending.

The South Dakota law, if enacted, would be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. And as many as twenty-nine state legislatures are ready to pass blanket abortion bans as soon as Roe is repealed. Lest we forget, it is no longer clear that a majority of the Justices will protect a woman’s right to choose; and before we get too excited about the prospects for change this November, recall that President Bush still has two more years to appoint judges. Roger Hunt, who sponsored the South Dakota legislation, puts it like this: “The appointment of [Samuel] Alito and [John] Roberts gives us four of nine Justices…there is a strong likelihood that President Bush will get an opportunity to appoint another judge to the Supreme Court. I think that within three years, we will have five prolife judges. And it will take this legislation three years to get there.”

Many people in South Dakota, including some who are prolife, feel that something ugly and extreme was foisted on them by their legislature. Progressives and moderates may well respond by joining hands to kill this legislation.

Rejecting this draconian law won’t be the end of the fight to protect women’s dignity and women’s rights. But failure to overturn it will make that fight–and the lives of women in South Dakota and across our nation–enormously more difficult.

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