Rooting for Choice

South Dakota's abortion ban has spurred a progressive grassroots movement

| June 22, 2006

Traditionally, the pro-choice movement has followed a set top-down path, dismissing rural, conservative states in favor of the federal courts. But the pro-choice establishment could learn a thing or two from one of those rural, conservative states: South Dakota. The state earned its place as one of the least choice-friendly states earlier this year when Gov. Mike Rounds signed a bill criminalizing abortion (in all cases -- including incest, rape, and fetal anomaly -- except when the mother's life is threatened). So it would seem that anyone looking for tips to revitalize the pro-choice movement should be looking elsewhere. But, writing for The Nation, Katha Pollitt uncovers a South Dakota that's not all anti-abortion billboards.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the state's new standing as a symbol of the anti-abortion movement's hopes and dreams drew the ire of many South Dakotans. The bipartisan South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families quickly and successfully petitioned to get a ban-repeal referendum on the ballot for the November elections, collecting 38,000 signatures -- essentially one in every 20 citizens -- in record time.

Another grassroots push came from the state's reservations as Native American women began stepping out as pro-choice supporters. Pine Ridge Reservation president Cecilia Fire Thunder made headlines by announcing she would consider skirting the state's ban by putting an abortion clinic on her tribe's reservation, should the ban go into effect. (She has since been suspended from her post by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council.) A record number of Native American women put their name in the ring for the June 6 primary elections, all on a progressive and pro-choice platform. Of the five candidates, three found victory in their races --? a feat for a largely grassroots campaign. 'One can't help wondering what would have happened if the state Democratic Party had put some energy into getting out the vote,' Pollitt writes.

While pro-choicers have cause to celebrate, the primaries were not entirely in their favor. Four ban-rejecters (all Republicans) lost to pro-ban opponents, and all pro-ban incumbents won their races. Still, the pro-choicers are optimistic. Says Sarah Stoesz, head of a South Dakota Planned Parenthood affiliate: 'In South Dakota it will come down to fairness for rape and incest victims, to the health issues, and to families' right to make their own decisions.'



In a piece for TomPaine.com, NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan suggests that South Dakota's ban has lit the way for other states, with Louisiana's governor signing an abortion ban this month and 12 other states considering similar legislation. But with the grassroots victories in South Dakota, as well as pro-choice primary wins in other traditionally conservative states like Iowa and Montana, Keenan has a pretty good idea of why people might not be backing anti-abortion candidates. 'Not only are they pushing extreme and divisive bans to criminalize abortion, but they're blocking commonsense measures that would prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion. Their actions have exposed their hypocrisy and hostility toward the fundamental values of freedom and privacy. '

What began as a heralded bill that anti-abortion advocates hoped would ultimately topple Roe v. Wade may turn into a scramble to hang onto conservative legislation. Should South Dakota's referendum pass in November, Pollitt writes, 'Success would be a powerful statement about the limits of anti-choice politics.'