Ripples From Law Banning Abortion Spread Through South Dakota
By Monica Davey, The New York Times, April 16, 2006
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Plenty of places would wish to find themselves at the center of a national philosophical debate, but this is South Dakota.
In the two months since the State Legislature set off a political and legal war by passing the most sweeping abortion ban in the country, residents have seemed awkward and uneasy in their spot at the leading edge of the country's clash over abortion.
Some say that they are stunned to find South Dakota, the fifth least populous state, at the center of any such thing and that they are put off by the thought of outsiders arriving here with fancy advertising campaigns. And although they have seen nasty political skirmishes before, as recently as the 2004 defeat of Senator Tom Daschle, they say they are uncomfortable with the prospect of such a personal matter becoming fodder for so much public debate.
Political war, after all, is not cordial, and most South Dakotans are.
Outside the Minnehaha County administration building here on a blustery morning, Elizabeth M. Hulscher approached anyone who came her way, asking them to sign a petition that would put the abortion ban on hold and send it to the ballot for the state's voters to consider in November.
"I have been waiting for the chance to sign this," one woman told her. A man in a suit stopped, too, and politely agreed to sign. Only after he left did Ms. Hulscher, 43, notice that he had written something other than his name: "No abortions. I pray for you."
Another woman pushing a stroller smiled but declined to sign. With that, Ms. Hulscher set aside her clipboard to hold the door open for her.
Effects of the ban seem to be emerging all around, with fallen poll numbers for the governor who signed the law and growing ranks of candidates who want to replace the state's lawmakers. Ordinary people, too, said they had found themselves tangling unpleasantly with their closest friends over a question they had never really discussed much outside their homes. Some said they feared that as the fight over the ballot measure intensified, it would bring only more painful division.
Toni L. Popham, 48, grew emotional as she wondered aloud what her acquaintances near Watertown, 100 miles north of Sioux Falls, might think if she agreed to gather signatures in the beauty shop she owns. "Some of my clients may not like it," Ms. Popham said on a recent evening, tears suddenly filling her eyes. "I guess this is the time to stand up, but I don't know what people will think."
The sponsors of the bill, which outlaws abortions except when a woman's life is in jeopardy, intended it to set up a direct challenge — the first in more than a decade — to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision making abortion legal.
For now, though, the fight is taking place not in the courts but on the mainly quiet streets of places like Sioux Falls, the state's biggest city, with more than 130,000 residents, and Estelline, a corn and soybean town of about 700. Rather than filing a lawsuit immediately, opponents of the abortion ban have called on a state provision dating to 1898 that allows voters to reconsider a law passed by the Legislature if enough signatures are gathered.
As opponents of the ban went to gather signatures outside public buildings, at bowling leagues and in coffee shops, those who favor it said they were setting out across the state as well, on a bus they had dubbed "the Fleet for Little Feet," complete with an ultrasound machine and plastic models of a growing fetus. The leader of the largest Indian reservation here, meanwhile, has pledged to open an abortion clinic on tribal land if the state ban stands.
Reeling from all the attention, some here said they were still confused about how South Dakota had become the focus of such a fundamental fight. Many said they had been swamped with phone calls and e-mail messages (some supportive; others not) from relatives and friends in other states, and only then recognized the significance of what was happening.
The political ripples are already being felt. After signing the bill in March, Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican seeking re-election in November, saw his job approval ratings drop to 58 percent from 72 percent in the next month, according to a Survey USA poll. Mr. Rounds faces two Democratic challengers, whose campaigns, political analysts say, have been energized by the abortion decision.
And many more candidates than usual filed to run for the Legislature, all 105 seats of which are on the ballot this fall, said Chris Nelson, the secretary of state. Democrats, the minority in both legislative chambers, have challengers in most of the races, a fact that some here tie directly to the abortion fight.
"Frankly, we had been anticipating a ho-hum election year," said Robert Burns, a political scientist at South Dakota State University in Brookings. "But this issue is spilling over in the House race, into the governor's race, and into many of the legislative races."
Along a commercial strip in Sioux Falls, a nondescript building houses Planned Parenthood, the only abortion clinic in the state. In 2004, the last year for which state health records are available, 814 abortions were performed in South Dakota, or about half as many as were performed in this state a quarter century ago. In 1982, for instance, the state reported 1,693 abortions.
For now, the clinic, which has long flown doctors in from Minnesota because it is difficult to find South Dakota doctors willing to perform abortions, is still open. The new law does not go into effect until July 1, but it will be put on hold if opponents can gather signatures from at least 16,728 of the state's 486,000 registered voters by June 19.
"From our standpoint, the opportunity for South Dakota to loudly proclaim that the Legislature has overreached is very important," said Sarah Stoesz, the president of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. If the ballot effort fails, Planned Parenthood officials said, the organization will file a lawsuit in federal court to block the ban, which would set off the legal challenge the ban's authors still hope for.
Less than two miles from the Planned Parenthood clinic, between a taco shop and a carwash, another bland building houses Alpha Health Services, whose sign promises "Free pregnancy tests, abortion information and S.T.D. testing."
Once an abortion clinic, this is now home to the projects of Leslee J. Unruh, one of the most vocal leaders of the effort to ban abortion here. Ms. Unruh, who said she had had an abortion in the late 1970's and regretted it deeply, said 6,000 women came here each year for ultrasound tests, counseling and other assistance.
"The people have already spoken," Ms. Unruh said of the Legislature's vote.
She said the voting patterns here would be simple: "Our polls are, we will win. Our people are not going to be taken in by all the lies."
But a woman from Rapid City, on the state's western edge, drove alone for more than five hours in March to have an abortion at the Planned Parenthood clinic. The woman, who is in her 30's and said she feared for her safety if her name was used in this article, went to the clinic the very day Governor Rounds signed the ban.
Had the law been in effect, she said, she still would have found a way — legal or not — to have an abortion. "Once that type of decision is made, it's going to be done," she said. "Are we really going to go that route?"
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