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.

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

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.

"It's very compelling evidence," says Representative Hunt, noting that the task force also determined that life begins at conception.

He and Unruh quibble with the portrayal of the bill as having no exceptions for rape or incest, pointing to one section that guarantees women access to emergency contraception, which helps prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after sex. But opponents of the ban say that doesn't help many women who may not immediately report a rape, and they note that South Dakota recently passed legislation allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill an emergency contraception prescription.

Of the 800 or so abortions performed in the state each year, only a few are due to rape or incest, but for many voters those are the instances they keep coming back to.

"People are saying, are you telling me if my granddaughter was raped she'd have to go to term?" says David Volk, a former state treasurer and secretary of commerce and regulation who considers himself a staunchly "pro-life" Republican. He is opposed to the ban. "It's the wrong case at the wrong time."

In addition to seeing it as too extreme, Mr. Volk objects to the money that will be needed for the state to defend the bill in court – especially since he thinks it has no chance of overturning Roe v. Wade. And many national antiabortion groups seem to agree with him. The National Right to Life Committee barely mentions the case on its Web site, and Americans United for Life, a legal support group in Chicago, says it's unlikely the Supreme Court would revisit Roe through a ban like this.

"It's going to be a very tall hill to climb for that to happen," says David McConchie, the group's executive director. "But if it's a ban of something people support, they should vote for that."

National abortion-rights groups, meanwhile, are watching the vote closely in part because they're concerned about other states – like Ohio, Louisiana, and Texas – following South Dakota and about the changing makeup of the Supreme Court.

"There's this climate that they feel [Roe] could be overturned, and that's what they're doing with the South Dakota ban," says Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. But the chilly reception the ban has gotten in a antiabortion state may be an indication that more extreme abortion opponents are overreaching, she says. "Their true agenda is now uncloaked. ... And American people are saying enough is enough."

At the state's only abortion clinic – already a five-hour drive for people in the western part of South Dakota – protesters wave signs outside on a day when a doctor has flown in. With no doctors in the state willing to perform abortions, the four doctors who work at the clinic have to fly in from Minnesota.

"Women who don't want to be pregnant will go to extreme measures," says Miriam McCreary, a semi-retired obstetrician from St. Paul explaining why she makes the trip one to three times a week. "Abortion should be safe, legal, and available as a backup if contraception fails."

But while the ban is controversial – especially in a state that, while antiabortion, also has many libertarian tendencies – not all South Dakotans struggle with it. Lawns in Sioux City are dotted with pink-and-blue "Vote Yes on 6" signs. Some voters are enthusiastic about the law. As Justin Huck and Katie Kjelden go door-to-door in a neighborhood of small houses to campaign against the ban, they get varied responses.

"You're talking to the wrong person – I very much believe in the sanctity of human life," a blond woman with two small dogs tells Mr. Huck. Judy Alvine, on the other hand, gives Ms. Kjelden a warm reception when she answers the door.

"They make it sound like if you were Christian you would be for it," she says with frustration. "We have a doctor in the family, and he feels very strongly it should be a medical thing."

"It's refreshing to have people you can actually talk with," says Kjelden, a high school sophomore volunteering for the campaign, as she leaves the house. "And she and her husband are both registered Republicans!"

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