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Kelpie Wilson: This Week in South Dakota

This Week in South Dakota

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 30 October 2006

Of all the candidates and initiatives on the ballot next week, there is one state campaign that has no parallel. The state is South Dakota, and the campaign is the referendum to overturn the abortion ban approved by the state's legislature and signed into law by its governor, Mike Rounds, last March.

This law is a first for the nation and a bellwether. If South Dakotans fail to overturn the abortion ban on November 7, more than a dozen states have similar laws drafted and waiting in the wings. This is not the slow chipping away at reproductive rights that we are used to. The South Dakota ban is a complete ban on all abortion procedures with only one exception: to save the life of the mother.

From all reports, the campaign has been heated and intense. I wondered how things were looking as we near the final days, so I contacted the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families. The Healthy Families campaign formed last year to challenge the ban. They had no trouble collecting the signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot, but polling shows a surprising amount of support for keeping the ban in place, and this summer, four lawmakers who voted against the ban were defeated in their primaries.

I spoke at length with Healthy Families campaign manager Lindsay Roitman. I asked her what had happened in the last week, and she paused for a moment before answering. It was Sunday, and she was obviously tired. "I'm not sure I even remember what happened yesterday," she said, laughing, but quickly remembered last week's highlight. "We had some good breaks last week with journalists getting more aggressive with the ban proponents and their lies."

According to Roitman, the pro-ban side is running "two campaigns." On the one hand, they are trumpeting to their base that they have passed a complete, no-exceptions ban in South Dakota. On the other hand, their campaign ads say that the ban does have exceptions both for a woman's health and for victims of rape and incest. Roitman called this campaign message "a slippery pig."

The pro-ban campaign says that a woman's health is protected because the doctor won't be prosecuted if her fetus or embryo accidentally dies while she is being treated for a health condition. But since the law requires that the doctor "shall make reasonable medical efforts" to save the life of the fetus or embryo, it creates a gray area that puts physicians at considerable risk. And there are some health conditions where only termination of the pregnancy can preserve the woman's health. Dr. Maria Bell, of Sioux Falls, spoke about severe diabetes with retinapathy, a pregnancy complication that can leave a woman blind. There is no exception for a therapeutic abortion to save her eyesight. Most obstetricians and gynecologists in the state are opposed to the ban.

The pro-ban side also claims that victims of rape and incest are protected because they can use emergency contraception up to 14 days after a sexual assault. Roitman was indignant about this claim. "It's one thing to be deceptive, but it's another to publish false information that can harm women," she said. Emergency contraception is only effective within the first 72 hours after unprotected intercourse. It is a contraceptive method, not an abortion and it works by preventing ovulation or implantation in the uterus. Nor is it fail-safe. According to the manufacturer of the Plan B emergency contraceptive, if taken within 3 days it can only "reduce the risk of pregnancy by 89%."

Roitman feels that people are starting to see through the lies. She said that most South Dakotans are reasonable people who respond to the most logical argument. I asked her to slice the demographics of the state for me to understand where the support for a no-exceptions ban comes from. I wondered if there were an urban/rural split, or a generation gap.

Roitman's answer surprised me. The west side of the state is ranching country where people have a libertarian bent, she said, and regard the ban as government intrusion on their personal lives. The east is farmland, and the population skews older - old enough to remember the bad pre-Roe days when women died of illegal and self-inflicted abortions. The biggest block of support for the ban is in the Sioux Falls suburbs, where the mega-churches are. And some of the most conservative voices are those of young women.

Young women of course are the targets of all this, especially with the new "protect the woman" message favored by the abortion ban campaign. The American Prospect has published an in-depth report on this new strategy to hijack the appeal of feminism by talking about the rights of women and portraying legal abortion as "coercive," with women who choose abortion cast as victims of "pressure."

Leslee Unruh, the director of the pro-ban campaign, Vote for Life, favors the woman focus: "The face of this campaign [in South Dakota] has not been dead babies or babies, it's been the women. I get real angry when people want to come to South Dakota and drive around with pictures of dead babies ... it just infuriates me."

Despite what the Vote for Life organizers say they want, there are plenty of bloody fetus pictures out on the street. According to Roitman, a group called is sending a convoy of semi trucks adorned with gruesome pictures to "cover the state."

Roitman also reports lots of intimidation out in the field. Several campaign spokespeople, including a doctor and a rape victim, quit after they got threatening phone calls. Canvassers find that many people won't say what they think because of the ugly social climate. Security is an issue at the campaign office. Strange men are hanging around outside taking pictures of volunteers and their car license plates. The Planned Parenthood clinic is under siege. "It's ground zero here," she said, "but I think we can win."

The week ahead will be full for Lindsay Roitman. A rally is planned for Wednesday at noon at the federal court house in Sioux Falls. She will oversee 1500 volunteers working to get out the vote. Lindsay yawned from exhaustion and I asked her why she was doing this. "In five years I want to be able to look back, and win or lose, say I did something about this," she said.

I asked what people could do to help over the next week. She said contributions are always helpful, and if people show up "I'll put them to work helping get out the vote." But one of the nicest things people could do is send notes of encouragement to the campaign office, because, "this is all hard work for the volunteers and there are no fun events like you get with a candidate. People call us names." You can send notes to info @

There is one more thing supporters can do. The abortion ban proponents claim to have God on their side, but increasingly, churches and religious people have been speaking out for choice. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice plays a big role in the campaign. "If people want to," Lindsay said, "they can pray for us."


Kelpie Wilson is the Truthout environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.

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