S. Dakotans rally for abortion vote

October 21, 2006|By Judy Peres | Judy Peres,Chicago Tribune

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- It takes spunk for Katie Andert to sit in the middle of the Commons, day after day, behind a table festooned with signs demanding "Vote No on 6: Repeal the Abortion Ban."

South Dakota is a distinctly conservative state, and the majority of its residents will tell you they are "pro-life." They'll also tell you South Dakotans prize politeness and eschew confrontation. Andert's booth on the Augustana College campus is a bit too in-your-face for most folks.

But Andert, a 21-year-old psychology major, is part of a campaign to overturn the nation's toughest anti-abortion law in a statewide referendum Nov. 7. The outcome of the campaign, which dominates the pre-election landscape in South Dakota, could help determine the future of abortion rights nationwide.

Supporters of the state's near-total ban on abortion hope to use it to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. Other states are poised to enact similar laws if this vote succeeds. If it is upheld, Planned Parenthood, which runs the only abortion clinic in the state, has said it will sue to block it in court on grounds that it is unconstitutional.

"If they strike down Roe, all abortion is at risk in this country," said Eleanor "Ellie" Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. magazine. "We estimate about 30 states would ban it."

South Dakota's law criminalizes all abortions except those "intended to prevent the death of a pregnant mother." It makes no exception for rape or incest, or for cases in which the woman's health is at risk.

Dr. Marvin Buehner, an obstetrician in Rapid City, says the law would tie his hands when treating patients with serious medical complications.

Buehner recounted the case of a 38-year-old woman who was diagnosed with rectal cancer at the same time her 13-week pregnancy was confirmed. "The oncologist recommended radiation to the pelvis and immediate chemotherapy, which would have been fatal to the fetus," he said.

Buehner said the woman, whom he described as "pro-life," agonized over the dilemma but ultimately decided to abort "because she felt she had an obligation to her other children." Had the ban been in effect, Buehner said, he could have gone to jail for terminating the pregnancy.

"I would have had to prove my termination prevented her death," he said, "and I can't do that."

A small group of physicians who support the abortion ban argue that the law allows them to treat a pregnant cancer patient. The statute says medical treatment that results in the "accidental" death of a fetus is not a violation.

The issue has mobilized South Dakotans who were never active before, from teenagers to octogenarians.

"This legislation has made people awaken from their complacency," said Jessica Nathanson, an assistant professor of English and gender studies at Augustana.

Dr. Anne Fisher, 50, an emergency physician, volunteers at the Rapid City headquarters of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, the coalition fighting to repeal the ban, known officially as Referred Law 6.

"I was never involved in a political campaign before," said Fisher, who said she's never performed an abortion and wouldn't have one herself. "But this is just incredibly important. The law is so unfair"

The anti-abortion side is equally passionate. Church groups have sent teenagers to the state Capitol to lobby politicians. One Baptist congregation in Rapid City has had a voter registration table at its Sunday services. And VoteYesForLife.com, the organization fighting to retain the ban, says it has thousands of volunteers planting signs, manning phones and holding house parties.

Leslee Unruh, campaign manager of VoteYesForLife.com, insists that the ban is essential to protect women's health and argues that most abortions are coerced by male partners who seek to exploit women. Unruh runs a support group for "post-abortive" women, like herself, who were traumatized by the procedure.

Polls show the "No" side ahead. A statewide survey run by the Argus Leader newspaper and KELO-TV in late July found that 47 percent of South Dakotans were against the ban, 39 percent support it, and 14 percent were undecided. A majority of the opposed and undecided said they would support a ban that allowed exceptions for rape and incest. The ban is on hold pending the outcome of the referendum.

Judy Peres writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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