Commentary: South Dakota lights a fire to commonground

BOSTON -- Two months ago, when all eyes were on Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings, I traveled 1,300 miles west to Sioux Falls, S.D. I went to see the state where the right to abortion had already come down to this: one clinic, one day a week, ...

BOSTON -- Two months ago, when all eyes were on Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings, I traveled 1,300 miles west to Sioux Falls, S.D.

I went to see the state where the right to abortion had already come down to this: one clinic, one day a week, one doctor. The women in the waiting room had come from all over the state. The doctor had flown in from Minneapolis.

South Dakota had become a legislative laboratory for abortion restrictions. It had followed the blueprint that Alito himself had laid out in the 1980s. This was a strategy to add so many restrictions -- one law at a time -- that Roe v. Wade would collapse without ever being overturned.

As Kate Looby, the head of the state Planned Parenthood said that day, we could end up with a hollow right to abortion that would mean nothing to the women of South Dakota.

Now Alito is on the bench and abortion opponents believe, in the words of South Dakota state legislator Roger Hunt, "This is our time." The "purists" are in charge now. All the pretense is gone. And the laboratory door has closed with a bang. Or, to put it more accurately, a ban.


On Monday, Gov. Mike Rounds signed a bill that bans all abortions except those to protect the life of the woman. No exception for rape. Or incest. Or to protect a woman's health.

The purists dropped the old blueprint in favor of a direct, head-on battle. The ban passed with the clear, stated intention of overturning Roe in a changed Supreme Court. This is a ban so extreme that it outflanks the pro-life president. It's a confrontation so direct that even many in the anti-abortion leadership are uneasy with the strategy and the timing. Though not, you will note, with the goal.

Nevertheless, is it possible that South Dakota and other states following suit have done the country a favor? As Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America put it simply: "They've come out from behind the curtain."

Forget the political jockeying by pro-lifers to gain a foothold with moderates. Never mind laws on parental notification and consent in the name of family involvement. Or attempts to ban one abortion procedure at a time. Or laws to mandate misinformation and waiting periods.

Until now the anti-abortion right has not only tried to frame itself as moderate, it has dressed up in woman-friendly camouflage. It has touted research that makes one false claim after another linking abortion with depression and breast cancer. It has cast women as the hapless victims of abortion and portrayed its own side as protectors.

Even this week, with superb irony, Gov. Rounds promised tender care for the women he would force to continue their pregnancies. Rep. Hunt explained that women themselves would not be prosecuted under the law because any woman choosing abortion was "not thinking clearly." (Tell that to the U.S. soldier who made a 700-mile round trip to the clinic that January day.)

This is what it looks like in front of the curtain. South Dakota's law would make felons out of doctors who perform nearly any abortion. The government would replace women as moral decision-makers. And it would trump doctors as medical decision-makers.

After all, if abortion is only legal when the woman's survival is at risk, who makes that decision? If, according to the law, a doctor has to "make reasonable medical efforts ... to preserve both the life of the mother and the life of her unborn child," who judges those efforts? A cop? A court? One of those activist judges the right so loves to hate?


The ban, slated to go into effect July 1, will be challenged in court and possibly by a statewide vote. But hopes of pro-life purists are clearly pinned on the belief in a Supreme Court majority ready to reverse Roe. The hopes of the rest of us are pinned on seeing, really seeing, extremists in the spotlights.

"I think the South Dakota issue reflects the divisiveness that Americans are tired of," says NARAL's Keenan. Much political chatter this year has urged pro-choice advocates and politicians to move to the right. How many more times are they required to recite the pledge -- "we want abortion to be safe, legal and rare" -- while pro-life purists fight to make it unsafe and illegal?

On Tuesday, NARAL Pro-Choice America launched a Prevention First Day of Action. The press release of the day read optimistically: "Birth Control, Something We Can All Agree On." But the subject of the day was the ban and the battle.

Common ground, anyone? South Dakota just put another torch to it.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is .

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