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FEATURE | fall 2006

Showdown on the Plains
South Dakotans have come out in force against a draconian abortion ban. Can they stop it before it upends abortion rights throughout the nation?

SIOUX FALLS, S.D.-- College student Dena Gleason, 24, squints at the address on the blue wooden home with the two-car garage, then strolls resolutely toward the front door, armed with an open smile and a clipboard. The smell of freshly mowed grass clings to the thick evening air of midsummer, and the American flag on the porch droops in the heat.

This neighborhood, with its manicured lawns and tree-lined streets, is fit for a Norman Rockwell painting, but to Gleason, a senior at South Dakota State in Brookings, it’s simply the staging ground for the most important social battle she’s faced in her lifetime. She’s taken the semester off school and given up two jobs in order to gather tons of signatures and talk to hundreds of people, trying to convince them that a vote No on Referred Law 6 this November is critical for protecting women’s rights.

In February and March 2006, the state legislature of South Dakota passed, and Gov. Mike Rounds signed, a bill to outlaw abortion in the state. With no exceptions for rape, incest or a woman’s health—only to “prevent the death” of a pregnant woman—it is the most draconian abortion ban in the country.

South Dakota is a conservative, sparsely populated place—known for its Great Plains, Black Hills and Badlands—where abortion is already so constrained that there is only one clinic for its 775,000 residents. The state’s anti-abortion groups thought it was a perfect place to launch a further attack, but despite the legislative victory they have an all-out battle on their hands: The ban’s passage has spurred thousands of state residents such as Gleason—many of them political naifs—to action.

“I never thought this would be something I’d have to do. To go out and defend women’s rights in South Dakota and, the way it looks now, in the nation,” says Gleason, her voice rising to fill the quiet of the neighborhood. “We shouldn’t have to fight for this.”

Following the legislation’s passage, a coalition of feminist, reproductive-rights and civil-liberties groups formed the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families to ask that voters repeal the ban through a referendum on the November ballot. In just nine and a half weeks, more than 1,200 volunteers gathered over 38,000 signatures—double the number needed—from every county in the state. Besides scores of citizen volunteers, the campaign has attracted a number of prominent South Dakota leaders, including such unexpected supporters as former state Republican lawmaker Jan Nicolay and Maria Bell, a Catholic obstetrician.

The ban is about more than one state’s law: If the ballot measure doesn’t succeed in striking it down, the law will inevitably land on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court. There, with moderate Sandra Day O’Connor having been replaced by ultraconservative Samuel Alito, a decision to uphold the ban could reverse Roe v. Wade. This, no doubt, was the legislature’s intent, and with a reversal of Roe, experts believe abortion might be eventually outlawed in as many as 30 states (see "Pulling the State Triggers").

“The South Dakota law itself is absolutely fantastic,” says Jim Sedlak, vice president of the American Life League, a group that believes the birth control pill acts as a “chemical abortion.” “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 decided.”

The national implications have created a shock wave of concern. The Internet is thick with ads for bumper stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with such phrases as “South Dakota, The Wire Hanger State.” A comment by Cecelia Fire Thunder, the embattled president of South Dakota’s Oglala Sioux Tribe, that she would establish an abortion clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where state law has little jurisdiction, made headlines around the country.

Lurking beneath the legislation is an even deeper attack on women’s reproductive lives. “Right-to-life” groups in South Dakota, funded in large part by federal grants provided by the Bush administration for abstinence-only education, are pushing a conservative agenda that aims to strip away not only access to abortion, but to sex education and birth control.

“This is about an ill wind that is beginning to blow in S.D. and will ultimately blow across the country unless stopped,” says Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota. “I view the South Dakota campaign we’re currently mounting as a first step to significantly fight back against this political movement.”

To get a sense of what Stoesz is up against, visit the Alpha Center in Sioux Falls. Located in a former Planned Parenthood clinic that moved across town, surrounded by strip malls and fast-food joints, the center’s blue sign advertises free pregnancy tests. What you’ll get here if you’re pregnant, though, isn’t a choice: It’s a hard-sell message that you should take the pregnancy to term and then give your baby up for adoption.

Center founder Leslee Unruh, who has described masturbation as “the first stage of sexual addiction,” is a well- known abortion opponent. She’s also founded the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a national group based in Sioux Falls that pushes for abstinence until marriage. Until just recently, a call here would connect to the headquarters for the campaign working to uphold the abortion ban.

"This is huge, a great opportunity,” Unruh told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader upon learning of Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement from the Supreme Court. (Unruh declined repeated requests for an interview.) Unruh claimed to have started working on a plan to pass a South Dakota abortion ban six months before, anticipating Rehnquist’s retirement, and after O’Connor’s announcement Unruh and her cohorts decided it was time to “turn up the heat and the machine.”

To this end, in early 2005 Unruh lobbied the South Dakota legislature to create a task force that would supposedly set aside politics and apply scientific and medical expertise to the abortion question. However, 10 of the 17 governor- appointed members were staunch abortion opponents, including Unruh’s husband Allen, a chiropractor. Among those who offered testimony were psychologist Priscilla Coleman, psychotherapist Vincent Rue and human biologist Joel Brind—all favorites of the National Right to Life Committee, which has published their work on its website. The final report concluded that life begins at conception, that abortion providers have a legal duty to the unborn and that abortion traumatizes and exploits women.

“If science and medicine say life begins at conception then it’s incumbent on the legislature to do something,” says Roger Hunt, the South Dakota legislator who sponsored the abortion ban law after the task force announced its findings. “[We] did our homework and so the abortion ban is based on scientific study and fact.”

This strategy of touting faulty science to reinforce pro-life claims has been used by Unruh for years. For instance, the Alpha Center’s website misrepresents the medical risk of abortion, saying that it increases the risk of breast cancer.

The Bush administration, however, has consistently supported Unruh’s work. In fiscal year 2005, Unruh’s Alpha Center received nearly $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to fund abstinence education. The Clearinghouse’s tax returns for 2003 and 2004 list over $1 million received in government funds. Most significantly, in 2002 Congress gave the Clearinghouse $2.7 million to create national standards for abstinence-only programs used by schools and community groups.

“Abstinence-only-until-marriage money financed the development of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, whose leaders in turn brought upon South Dakota the most extreme anti-abortion ban,” says William Smith, vice president for public policy of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a New York-based advocacy group. “If you follow the money, there is no other conclusion: Our tax dollars financed the South Dakota anti-choice lobby.”

The way Unruh has combined a political agenda with the stated mission of her organizations has now come under scrutiny. In July, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed an IRS complaint alleging that both of Unruh’s organizations have violated their 501(c)(3) charitable status, which limits lobbying efforts. During 2003 and 2004, according to the complaint, Unruh failed to report to the IRS that she spent any money or time lobbying, although media accounts throughout those years document this repeatedly.

“She is able to raise more money and hold a bigger megaphone because she is violating the law,” says Naomi Seligman Steiner, deputy director of CREW. “The IRS is not doing its job when it comes to going after conservative organizations.”

The Rosebud reservation in south-central South Dakota wears its poverty in rutted dirt roads and cracked pavement, boarded-up trailers and sagging clotheslines. Rosebud is part of the second poorest county in America, where the average annual per capita adult income is just under $8,000.

Here, one can envision the real-life impact of a total abortion ban. On the Rosebud and other reservations in the state, 80 percent of female high school seniors report that they’ve been raped. State legislators such as Roger Hunt have suggested that such victims of rape or incest still can use emergency contraception. But that’s an untenable solution, says Nichole Witt of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society Inc., the reservation’s shelter for battered women, located in the town of Mission.

“Control over our bodies is being decided by white men who have no concept of our lives here as Indian women. We have children, young girls, being molested and raped by their family members,” says Witt, spitting her words with anger. “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.”

Witt estimates that many Native American women already don’t have the resources—gas money, a car—to drive four hours to the state’s only abortion clinic in Sioux Falls, let alone to Omaha, Minneapolis or Denver. “I worry about even more unwanted children being born; how is that going to impact our social systems?” says Witt. “As it is already we have a lot of native children in the foster care system and it’s a huge struggle to keep them here with their families.” Fifty-six percent of children in state care are tribal children. To put that in perspective, Native Americans make up just 8 percent of the state’s population.

An abortion ban would disproportionately impact all of South Dakota’s young women, says a Planned Parenthood abortion doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity. In 2005, 47 percent of female high school students in South Dakota reported having had sexual intercourse, according to the CDC, and nationally over 16 percent of female teens use no contraception.

“By the nature of being adolescents, they are the ones more inclined to take risks. They are in a position where an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy has the ability to most greatly affect their lives,” says the doctor, who has flown from Minneapolis at least once a month for the past year to provide abortions at the Sioux Falls Planned Parenthood Clinic. Today the waiting room is filled with women, both young and middle-aged, sifting through magazines. “Women with resources will get safe abortions. It’s these young women who will try to end their pregnancies in dangerous and unhealthy ways.”

To assure this doesn’t happen, volunteers with the Campaign for Healthy Families have been making phone calls, staffing booths at county and state fairs and logging miles to talk to people at their doorsteps. People are motivated around this issue,” says Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “It’s going to be tough but I believe we can win. All this grassroots support sends a very strong message to the anti- choice community that Americans are tired of divisive attacks on women’s health. The groundswell of support has been incredibly heartening.”

The effort remains a flat-out sprint with many unknowns, including the question of how citizens of Indian Country will vote. Despite their relatively low numbers in the state populace, Native Americans are considered a crucial voting bloc, especially in tight elections. Local choice activists are up against a strong Catholic, Episcopal and Evangelical presence on nearly every reservation. Already, pastors across the state, armed with voter guides developed by the South Dakota Family Policy Council, an anti- choice group, are preaching from the pulpit, telling their congregants to uphold the ban.

Leaders of the effort to repeal the abortion ban are keenly aware of the high stakes in the November election and beyond, not only for the women of South Dakota, but for women across the United States. "What keeps me going every day is the idea that today we have something in South Dakota that we didn’t have six months ago," says Stoesz of Planned Parenthood, "and that is an active on-the-ground campaign, with conversations occurring across kitchen tables."

“A win in this state will advance our movement for reproductive rights to the next level, and change the current politics of the country. Who would ever have predicted that the change would start in South Dakota?”

Rebecca Clarren is an investigative journalist based in Portland, Ore., with a particular interest in labor issues. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, The Nation and Los Angeles Times Magazine. She has won five grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.