Big stakes surround South Dakota's abortion ban

 

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 protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING IN TAOS, NEW MEXICO www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details:
  • HAND CRAFTED LOG HOME IN TETON VALLEY
    on ten acres. Full view of the Grand Teton. 35 miles to Yellowstone and 20 minutes to Grand Targhee Ski Area.
  • ACREAGE WITH HOME, SHOP, BARN FOR SALE!
    Must see for sng/extd fam or corp retreat in pines! $1,030,000
  • WESTERN REGIONAL MANAGER
    The American Forest Foundation seeks a smart and highly motivated candidate to join our Western conservation team. The Regional Manager supports the Regional Director to...
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the Integrated Transportation...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING INSTITUTE (EWI)
    with Robert Michael Pyle September 26-30, 2018, in Missoula MT.
  • REPORTING FELLOW - BOISE, ID
    Boise State Public Radio is hiring a Reporting Fellow as part of a new nationwide collaborative, Guns & America. Based in the state capitol, Boise...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Middle Colorado Watershed Council. Rifle, CO.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF RIVERSEDGE WEST (FORMERLY TAMARISK COALITION)
    RiversEdge West is seeking an entrepreneurial leader with solid nonprofit management skills to lead our high functioning team and help us make an impact on...
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR WITH WRA
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a talented, organized person with great people skills, who is passionate about protection of the natural environment to work...
  • DIRECTOR OF REGIONAL COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY
    The Wilderness Society is recruiting for an experienced Communicator for our Northwest Region. This position is located in Seattle, WA. For more information please visit...
  • SALMON RIVER IDAHO WILDERNESS RETREAT HOME
    Here is an opportunity to have a piece of self-sufficient paradise on Idaho's Main Salmon River adjacent to the largest Forest Service wilderness area in...
  • RAMMED EARTH SOLAR COTTAGE
    in 5-home conservation community & botanical sanctuary on 20 acres.
  • MEMBERSHIP AND ENGAGEMENT COORDINATOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation is looking for an enthusiastic and innovative Membership and Engagement Coordinator to help grow and maintain our grassroots voice for wildife,...
  • SR ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER
    The City of Fort Collins is excited to announce a Sr Environmental Planner position within the Natural Areas Department. This position will be housed within...
  • HISTORICAL VACATION CABIN
    on beautiful Snow Angel Ranch located within San Juan National Forest near Pagosa Springs, CO. Lakes, fly-fishing, swimming, hiking, mountain biking, horse trails, horse accommodations...
  • FIVE-ACRE VIEW LOT WITH WELL
    5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.