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South Dakota's stark abortion choice

A proposed ban on the ballot would be the nation's strictest since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling upholding the practice.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2006


An unlikely state could reset the tone of the country's abortion debate this November.

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South Dakota voters are poised to weigh in on a landmark bill, passed by the legislature in March and referred to the ballot by a petition drive, that would outlaw all abortions except to save a mother's life. While the law, if approved, will almost certainly be challenged in court, the campaign is under scrutiny by those on all sides of the national debate eager to see whether voters in a conservative, largely antiabortion state are ready to approve an all-out ban on abortion.

If the ban is voted down, it will indicate even abortion opponents aren't willing to rein in all rights, and it will diminish the chances that other states will pass similar bans. If it's approved, observers expect other states to follow, and it's possible a court challenge could reach the Supreme Court.

It's a decision many residents of South Dakota are wrestling with.

"It's really tough for us," Dick Ronken tells an antiabortion canvasser. "We're against abortion, but I think they haven't gone far enough to provide for all cases. It should be between a woman and her God and her doctor, without the government interfering."

Mr. Ronken's views aren't unusual in a state where many oppose abortion but look at it in personal terms – and often oppose government intrusion in their lives. In fact, some abortion-rights advocates say the soul-searching debate this vote has forced is one they welcome, hopeful it will lead to a decision to overturn the ban.

"In the case of abortion, we have long said that people in this country may accept restrictions, but will never accept a total ban on abortion – this debate really lays that bare," says Sarah Stoesz, the president of Planned Parenthood in Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota, which runs the only abortion-providing clinic in South Dakota.

Opponents of the ban hold a small lead in polls – 47 percent to 44 percent in a recent Zogby International poll – but that lead has narrowed. If the ban allowed exceptions in cases of rape and incest, polls show a sizeable majority would support it.

Perhaps for that reason the arguments on both sides have been atypical for an issue that rarely veers from rhetoric pitting a "protect unborn children" slogan against "protect a woman's right to choose." Those opposed to the ban have shied away from promoting access to abortion, focusing instead on the bill's strictness, which doesn't include exceptions for rape, incest, or the mother's health but would allow an abortion to save her life.

"Honor and protect human life, reduce the number of abortions," says one TV ad sponsored by the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, the coalition opposing the ban. "But should a woman who's the victim of rape or incest be left with no option?... Referred Law 6 makes no exception for these tragic circumstances. ... It just goes too far."

Similarly, proponents of the ban have eschewed slogans about saving babies' lives and photos of aborted fetuses in favor of a more feminist message about protecting women who, they say, are the ones victimized by abortion-rights advocates.

"For the last 33 years, women who have had abortions have been exploited," says Leslee Unruh, campaign manager for, who brought the bill to the legislature. Ms. Unruh had an abortion many years ago and has regretted her decision. Too often, she says, women aren't informed about the physical and emotional consequences of abortion.

"I've asked women to continue to be at the forefront, and to have it continue to be about women," Unruh says.

When she proposed the bill, legislators convened a task force to study the issue and concluded with a highly controversial report that triggered members of the task force to walk out in protest. Women like Unruh who had abortions they regretted testified before the task force and were a big reason the legislature decided to go ahead with the bill, says Rep. Roger Hunt, the Republican who sponsored it.