Friday, October 20, 2006

Dakota divided as abortion vote tests US opinion

H/T to Marti

By Holly Yeager in Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Published: October 19 2006 19:25 Last updated: October 19 2006 19:25

Abortion-rights activists in South Dakota took many by surprise a few months ago when they said voters should decide the fate of the state’s new abortion law, the most restrictive in the US.

Now, with a referendum on the November 7 ballot, their campaign has become the frontline in the long-running national debate on abortion.

A victory here would show that even in a conservative Midwestern state, the public will not tolerate a near-total ban on abortion. But a defeat would signal just how difficult a challenge campaigners face in trying to protect a woman’s right to abortion.

While they bristle at the attention, the South Dakota activists are counting on residents of this old frontier state to prove them right.

“I don’t think South Dakota likes being in the limelight,” says Jan Nicolay, co-chair of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, formed to fight the abortion law, as a light snow falls outside the group’s slipshod Sioux Falls office.

“We’re a pretty independent, proud group of people,” she adds, hoping that independent streak will help voters reject what she sees as government meddling in an individual decision.

The law, passed with broad support by the state legislature and signed by Governor Mike Rounds in March, makes it a crime to help a woman abort a pregnancy at any stage, including in cases of rape and incest. Women would not face charges but doctors who perform abortions could be sentenced to five years in prison. The only exception in the law is to save the life of the mother.

The central message of the campaign to repeal it – taped on the office window, printed in voter guides being mailed out this week and mentioned frequently by volunteers making telephone calls to voters – is a simple one: “This law simply goes too far.” The referendum has prompted vigorous public debate, with television and radio advertisements, lawn signs and newspaper inserts. Neither side will discuss how much money has been spent, and how much of their firepower is coming from outside the state. “It’s a very divisive issue,” says Jack Billion, Democratic candidate for governor, who backs repeal of the law. “It pits family versus family.”

A recent poll showed opponents of the law with a slim lead, and abortion-rights activists hope victory here could discourage other states from moving to adopt similar bans. But if their repeal effort fails, they will take their battle to the courts.

A court challenge would be welcome news for some anti-abortion activists, who see the strict South Dakota law as a good opportunity for the US Supreme Court – with President George W. Bush’s two appointees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito – to overturn Roe vs Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalised abortion.

The Vote Yes for Life campaign is based in a warehouse on the outskirts of Sioux Falls. Outside, a bumper sticker declares, “The Killing Stops Here”. Inside, a home-schooled teenager stops by to volunteer. There are hundreds of lawn signs to be distributed and DVDs that feature women who regret their abortions, and one who became pregnant after she was raped. “I am here to say that true compassion does not come from abortion but from giving life.”

Rushing between appointments, Leslee Unruh, who is leading the campaign, mentions an abortion she had nearly 30 years ago and the support she received from other “post-abortive” women who say they regret their decisions. She has tried to expand the traditional debate on abortion beyond its effect on the unborn to its effect on women.

“We’re not going to be silenced,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if we win or we lose. We are educating people that abortion hurts women and we’re not going to stop.”

She shakes her head when asked whether the state can make such decisions for others. “Don’t get pregnant then, if you don’t want a child,” says Mrs Unruh. But maintaining legal access to abortion should not be an option. “We need to be protected. Abortion harms us, physically and emotionally.”

South Dakota voters drew national attention two years ago when they surprised the political pundits and voted out Tom Daschle, Democratic leader in the US Senate. This year, voters’ positions on the abortion question are difficult to predict, frequently crossing gender and party lines.

Sharon Rons, a Democrat who owns her own small business, said she would vote to keep the law. “I don’t think abortion should be a form of birth control,” she says, adding that the decision to end a pregnancy “could haunt women for the rest of their lives”.

But some Republicans say they will oppose it, perhaps a reflection of a libertarian strain that runs through the sparsely populated state. “I just don’t feel that somebody else should make this decision for a woman,” said one Republican pensioner.

“We are responsible people,” said Mrs Nicolay, a Rep­ublican and former member of the state legislature. “We can make our own decisions.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006