By a whopping twelve points, voters in South Dakota have rejected a draconian ban on abortions, which would have outlawed the procedure in every instance except to save the life of the mother. This was an important defeat for the grassroots right-wing quest to overturn Roe v. Wade. It had a spillover effect, too, costing Republicans a seat in the House of Representatives and several state legislators. The outcome was all the more welcome because the campaign was a critical test of prochoice strategy: Could democracy–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 against the ban. Taking the abortion ban, which had 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, prochoice activists paid close attention to local political culture and talked about things that mattered to fellow South Dakotans. “It was not ‘Our Bodies, Our Choice,’ or ‘Get Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries,'” laughs Roitman. Instead, they emphasized the idea that government shouldn’t interfere in deeply personal decisions. Second, good old-fashioned organizing worked. The Campaign for Healthy Families had more than 2,000 volunteers knocking on doors and standing on street corners. In every county where the campaign had an office and a grassroots volunteer operation, prochoice forces prevailed. Abortion “has been treated as such a black-and-white issue,” says Roitman. “We got people to have conversations about the gray area.”