By a whopping twelve points, voters in South Dakota have defeated “Referred Law Number 6,” a draconian ban on abortions, which would have outlawed the procedure in every instance, except to save the life of the mother. This contest was an important defeat for the grass-roots far-right forces in their quest to overturn Roe v Wade. It also affected other races in the state, costing Republicans a seat in the House of Representatives as well as several state legislators. The campaign was also an important test of pro-choice strategy; could the electoral process–something reproductive rights organizations have often feared–be a better guardian of our rights than the legislature or the courts?
“This has been such a judicially-focused movement,” says Lindsay Roitman, campaign manager of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, the coalition whose organizing efforts deserves credit for this victory. Taking the abortion ban–which had already been enacted by the legislature, but was not yet in effect–to the voters, she says, was “a huge risk, one that people were questioning even until last week.” The victory is even more impressive given that, as Roitman points out, “this is not just a red state, but a deeply religious state.”
What worked in South Dakota? First, South Dakota pro-choice activists seemed to have paid close attention to their local political culture, and talked about things that mattered to its citizens. “It was not, ‘Our Bodies, Our Choice,’ or ‘Get Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries,'” laughs Roitman. Instead, the Campaign for Healthy Families emphasized a theme that resonated with South Dakotans: the idea that the government should not be interfering in people’s most deeply personal decisions. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, agrees. “I’m from the West, and the values of freedom and privacy really resonate with people.”
Second, good-old-fashioned organizing proved effective. The Campaign for Healthy Families had more than 2,000 volunteers knocking on doors, standing on street corners, talking to their fellow citizens about freedom and privacy. (This in a state whose population is about 800,000, in a contest in which 335,000 people voted.)
In every county in which the campaign had an office, and a grass-roots volunteer operation, the pro-choice forces prevailed. The victory has dramatic implications for the future of the pro-choice movement. “I’m so excited to organize politically on this issue,” says Lindsay Roitman. “It’s fun to talk about this now!”