On the outskirts of rural Menno, S.D., past acres of sunflowers, there's a wooden sign nailed to a post. It reads: "Abortion, America's #1 Killer." Similar signs dot roads throughout this conservative state, which is populated by 775,000 people and where just one clinic, based in Sioux Falls, performs about 800 abortions a year. Depending on the upcoming election, the state's lone clinic might be forced to close.
In February 2006, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, R, signed a law outlawing abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or a woman's health. It is the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, though the sale of emergency contraception — sometimes called Plan B — is still allowed. Following the legislation's passage, a coalition of local feminist and equal rights groups decided to try to repeal the ban by placing a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot. In just nine weeks, over 1,200 volunteers gathered 40,000 signatures on petitions — double the number needed — from every county in the state. Now, the voters of South Dakota will decide whether to uphold or repeal the ban.
Their effort has significance that reaches beyond South Dakota. If the referendum fails to strike down the ban, the law, which is not yet being enforced and which the state's attorney general has said is probably unconstitutional, will likely head straight for the U.S. Supreme Court, making it the most direct legal challenge of Roe v. Wade in over 30 years. A vote to retain the ban could also fuel momentum in 12 different states that have abortion bans pending, including Idaho and Utah. This was in part the South Dakota Legislature's stated intent — to spur a national movement to ban abortion.
"The law itself is absolutely fantastic," says Jim Sedlack, vice president of the American Life League, a group that believes all forms of contraception kill babies. "There are many groups that have waited for this to happen, and this is a major step forward. This is the kind of law we have been fighting for since Roe v. Wade was passed."
History, however, reveals that banning abortion has never prevented women from getting rid of unwanted pregnancies. For the wealthy and the well-connected, a ban in South Dakota would simply mean a long drive to Denver or Omaha to receive the procedure. For the poor, a continued ban on most abortions will mean more unwanted children or an increase in dangerous "coat hanger" abortions. The Rosebud Reservation in south-central South Dakota, for example, is the second-poorest county in America, with an average annual income of just over $7,000. Statistics here can be shocking; for example, 80 percent of female high school seniors report that they've been raped. The Legislature maintains that rape and incest victims still have the benefit of emergency contraception. Nicole Witt of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, Inc., which runs the reservation's shelter for battered women, based in Mission, S.D., says that is simply absurd.
"We have children — girls 10, 11, 12 years old — being raped by their uncles and cousins," says Witt angrily. "Most of the time they don't tell anyone; it only comes out when they're pregnant. They're so traumatized. Forcing them to have a child is almost like punishing them for what happened to them."
Just days before the election, it's hard to predict how South Dakotans are likely to vote. The most recent reliable polling data, released in late July by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, found that 47 percent of people surveyed said they would vote to overturn the abortion ban. More recently, a group of 89 board-certified obstetricians and gynecologists across the state criticized the ban as harming "medical decision-making."
But anti-abortion advocates have been organizing around this issue for 20 years. Pastors, armed with voter guides developed by pro-life groups, have been preaching from the pulpit, telling their congregations to vote to uphold the ban. Native Americans, with 8.3 percent of the state's population, are considered a crucial voting bloc, and there is a strong Catholic, Episcopal and evangelical presence on nearly every reservation.
Back in Menno, an hour's drive from Sioux Falls, at the local pharmacy, employee Sharon Sayler, 64, sums up conflict over the issue that I heard while doing interviews with women and men throughout the state.
"Just to have an abortion for convenience I feel is wrong," says Sayler, a regular churchgoer. "But I feel if the mother's life is in danger, or if rape or incest caused (the pregnancy), I believe abortion should be legal for that." When asked how she'll vote in November, she slowly shakes her head; then she says she plans to vote against the abortion ban.
Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and reporter in Portland, Oregon.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.