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!”