South Dakotans Again Consider An Abortion Ban

Making Their Cases

Tiffany Campbell holds her son, Brady. i i
Jane Greenhalgh/NPR
Tiffany Campbell holds her son, Brady.

Tiffany Campbell holds her 18-month-old son, Brady.

Jane Greenhalgh/NPR

When she was pregnant, Tiffany Campbell and her husband decided to abort one twin to help the other survive. Read more.

Allen Unruh is an organizer of Vote Yes for Life. i i

hide captionAllen Unruh is an organizer of Vote Yes for Life, which put the abortion initiative on the South Dakota ballot.

Jane Greenhalgh/NPR
Allen Unruh is an organizer of Vote Yes for Life.

Allen Unruh is an organizer of Vote Yes for Life, which put the abortion initiative on the South Dakota ballot.

Jane Greenhalgh/NPR
Craig O'Connor, a volunteer for the Campaign for Healthy Families,  contacts prospective voters. i i

hide captionCraig O'Connor, a volunteer for the Campaign for Healthy Families, contacts prospective voters by phone.

Jane Greenhalgh/NPR
Craig O'Connor, a volunteer for the Campaign for Healthy Families,  contacts prospective voters.

Craig O'Connor, a volunteer for the Campaign for Healthy Families, contacts prospective voters by phone.

Jane Greenhalgh/NPR

It's deja vu all over again in South Dakota, where voters are being asked for the second election in a row to approve or reject a ban on abortion.

Two years ago, voters just said no to a ban so sweeping it allowed almost no exceptions. This year, the proposed ban is a little less rigid.

But opponents say it's still too extreme. And partisans on both sides know it's not just abortions in South Dakota at stake: If the ban is passed, it could be used to mount a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the right to abortion nationwide.

Strolling through a serene neighborhood in Sioux Falls on a pristine autumn day with volunteers canvassing door-to-door, it was hard not to flash back to nearly the exact same scene two years earlier.

"Are you William?" asks Megan Moss, one of dozens of 20-something volunteers opposing the ban. She and her colleagues have been crisscrossing the state a house at a time.

William Flanagan nods his head over the din of several barking dogs. "I'm with the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families," Megan continues. "I'm going around your neighborhood passing out information on Initiated Measure 11. Have you heard of that yet?"

Limiting Exceptions

Initiated Measure 11 is the formal name of the abortion referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot. It would ban virtually all abortions in the state, with limited exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the life or health of the woman.

At this house, Moss scores a hit, as Flanagan says he'll be voting against the ban. "I don't believe in government telling people what to do," he says.

But while a strong libertarian streak among South Dakota voters like Flanagan helped defeat the ban two years ago, South Dakota is still a very conservative state when it comes to abortion.

That's apparent around the corner, at the home of ZoAnn Trumbull. "I believe abortion is wrong, it's murder," she tells Moss' canvassing colleague, Hassan Ali. "And according to the Bible, thou shall not murder. ... And there are a lot of people out there who need to adopt those babies that need to be adopted, and that's the way we stand," she says politely, but firmly.

Across town, at the headquarters of Vote Yes for Life, the people working to pass the ban hope there are a lot more voters like ZoAnn Trumbull.

The headquarters — once a Planned Parenthood clinic — is now decked out with orange and blue balloons, and little framed pictures of babies' feet decorate the walls. In what used to be the clinic waiting room, one whole wall is taken up by a massive map of South Dakota showing votes on the 2006 ban county by county, where they won and where they need to gain more support.

A Revised Initiative

Presiding over a row of volunteers combing through computerized voter lists on this particular day is Allen Unruh. He's one of the campaign's organizers and a longtime anti-abortion activist in the state. He says a big reason the 2006 effort didn't succeed was that the ban simply went too far.

"Countless people said, 'If you'd had an exception for rape and incest, then we'd have voted with you,' " he says.

So in version 2.0, he explains, "we're giving the people of South Dakota what they wanted. This bill, this initiative, basically has exceptions for rape, incest and health and life of the mother."

Unruh says he recognized that some compromise was necessary. "Ideally, I'd like to save every child possible, but we don't live in that type of world right now. So to me, it's kind of like if the Titanic is sinking, would you say, 'Let's not lower the lifeboats because you can't save them all?' Let's save every person we can."

Across town, at the current Planned Parenthood clinic, CEO Sarah Stoesz says all the talk of limits on the ban is nothing but a smoke screen.

"If this ban is passed, it means that there will be no abortions performed in South Dakota," she says.

Currently, no doctors in South Dakota are willing to do elective abortions; Planned Parenthood flies in doctors from Minnesota once or twice a week. They perform between 700 and 800 abortions per year — one of the lowest rates in the country. Stoesz says the proposed ban's exceptions are so narrow that not only would it force an end to elective abortions, it would mean abortions could not be performed for any other reason, either.

"In the case of the so-called life exception, doctors will have to be so absolutely certain that a woman could fit through this narrow, narrow exception so they would not under any circumstances make a mistake — because if they make a mistake, they are subjected to potentially felony charges," Stoesz says. "And I have not met a doctor in South Dakota yet who has said he or she is willing to perform an abortion under those circumstances."

Strings Attached

The rape and incest exceptions to the ban come with similar strings: They require the doctor to collect and preserve DNA samples from the fetus. Backers of the ban say that will help catch criminals. Opponents say it's just another way to deter women from seeking abortions and doctors from performing them.

But what worries Stoesz most is that if the ban were to pass, it could well trigger a lawsuit that could quickly have national implications.

"A state that has only 778,000 people living it in could potentially set in motion a course of events that could overturn Roe versus Wade," she says, referring to the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.

And that's just what Unruh is hoping for. "You know, we might be a flyover state, but we want to be a beacon of light for anybody who flies over. That's what our goal is."

Both sides are predicting a close vote.

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