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SD Choice Advocates Pull into Homestretch, Issue SOS

October 26, 2006

In response to a stepped up, aggressive campaign by anti-choice forces in South Dakota, pro-choice advocates are fighting hard to insure victory against the most complete ban on abortion passed anywhere since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. “Even in a conservative state, the voters of South Dakota are going to repeal this,” Lindsay Roitman, manager for the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, a coalition of pro-choice groups that formed in response to the new law, told me. “It’s going to be very close, and everything we do matters between now and the end. But I do think the vote will come our way.” At the same time, she says, help is urgently needed—in the form of money, volunteers, and shows of support—for a campaign that could have national implications. On November 7, the tiny population of 775,000 in this largely rural state will either uphold “Referred Law 6”—the ballot initiative on the law that bans all abortions except to “prevent the death of a pregnant woman” and criminalizes a physician who performs an elective abortion—or stop it in its tracks. To bring the new law before the voters, groups coalesced under the Healthy Families banner and garnered twice the necessary signatures. While the pro-choice forces never expected a “landslide” victory, as Kate Looby, executive director of Planned Parenthood of South Dakota explained it, “the feeling now is that the election will be much closer than anyone had anticipated.” The reason: anti-choice forces have come pouring into the state, creating an atmosphere of intimidation, say pro-choice advocates. Pick-up trucks patrolling the streets bear giant images of mangled fetuses. The terrain is peppered with 30,000 lawn signs saying “vote yes on referred law 6.” Church leaders brazenly organize to defeat the ban, and harassing “baby killer” phone calls come into campaign offices. Among the protestors are some known for aggressive tactics—such as photographing women who come to the Sioux City clinic—so the Healthy Families Campaign made the costly decision to hire a security guard for its Sioux City headquarters. Pro-choice advocates describe the most damaging tactic as a media campaign of lies and misinformation. In ads and on their website the group called Vote Yes for Life asserts that the ban contains exceptions for women who have been raped, victims of incest, or who need an abortion to save their health. But no such language exists in the law, a fact attested to by such prestigious organizations as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (South Dakota Section), which has publicly condemned the ban. In a stunning bit of deceptive footwork, anti-choice forces make the case that rape and incest victims can still end pregnancies because the ban allows emergency contraception. In fact, the words “emergency contraception” appear nowhere in the bill—and EC is hardly the answer for rape victims who seek help from ERs or pharmacies that refuse to provide it, or for young incest victims who may not even know that EC exists. But what galls pro-choice advocates most is their opponents’ hypocrisy. The same people who fight expanded and mandated availability of EC are now using the existence of EC to defend their ban. Caitlin Collier, an Episcopal deacon and member of the newly formed pro-choice Pastors for Moral Choices, worries about the impact of such duplicity. She notes that an independent poll taken earlier this year found that nearly half (47%) of those polled opposed the ban if it lacked exceptions for rape, incest, or health of the mother, while only 39% supported it (14% were undecided). But the numbers “flipped,” with a majority of the poll’s respondents favoring the ban (59%), if the ban included those exceptions. Maria Moreno of Choice USA reports that the campaign is “running neck and neck with the far right” and needs reinforcements. Indeed, the eleventh hour anti-choice media blitz has put great pressure on the pro-choice forces to keep up the momentum of their campaign at a time when, admittedly, they are exhausted. Playwright and journalist Cindy Cooper is touring South Dakota with her popular theatre piece, Words of Choice. In the often intimate discussions that follow the performances, she has witnessed a sense of isolation among pro-choice people of all ages, a fear of expressing their pro-choice views, and a longing for a safe place to talk. They feel, she says, “overwhelmed, overpowered, and outgunned.” Campaign for Healthy Families media contact Kathryn Seck doesn’t feel isolated, but she does feel “inundated.” Speaking from the center of a media storm, the organizers are clear that they need as much support as possible from the wider pro-choice community to get them through this home stretch to victory. Campaign manager Roitman says they need money to pay for the new security guard, to rent buses to get people to the polls, to create staging areas for volunteers, to feed volunteers, to install more phone lines, and to finish their own ad blitz. They also need more volunteers, and will house people who can get themselves to South Dakota. The ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project is providing $200 to $500 travel stipends to law, medical and college students who want to join the campaign (for more information, contact sietstra@gmail.com). For those who can’t give money or directly participate, Cooper, the playwright, suggests sending a goodie basket, a box of candy, or a note for the wall of postcards and letters at campaign headquarters. “They need moral support,” she says. “Thank them for what they’re doing.” Planned Parenthood’s Looby wants reassurance that the pro-choice community understands that a loss could launch similar campaigns all over the country. “We’re talking about banning abortion,” she says. “It’s a big deal.”

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