On the southern edge of Sioux Falls, where shopping malls and large suburban churches begin to give way to prairie, there is a squat, bunker-like brick building with a heavy flat roof and just a few reflective slits for windows. The entrance — a reinforced glass door manned by a security guard — is tucked away at the back. This is South Dakota's only abortion clinic. When the last doctor retired, no one dared take up the job, so these days Planned Parenthood, which runs the place, flies doctors in from neighboring Minnesota once a week. Soon even this extremely limited access to abortion could cease, however. On Nov. 7, the people of South Dakota will vote in a referendum whether to adopt a sweeping state law that would make abortion a crime.
This is a battle with nationwide significance. The law was passed in South Dakota last March with the express intent of provoking a challenge to the famous Roe vs. Wade supreme court ruling that in 1973 gave women in the US the right to an abortion. If South Dakota does outlaw abortion, as many as 30 other states could soon move to impose their own abortion bans.
This is America's abortion debate in its purest, most distilled form: yes or no. There is no province for doubt. Should a woman be compelled to carry a baby to term when doctors tell her it will be born with no brain? Should a pregnant woman forgo potentially life-saving medical treatment for the sake of the baby she is carrying? Should a woman be forced to give birth to a child conceived in rape? Yes, yes and yes, says Leslee Unruh, the guiding light of South Dakota's anti-abortion activists. She has devoted her life to ending abortion, driven by her own guilt at having a termination as a young woman.
Unruh is based at an industrial shed near the airport in Sioux Falls. This is where the protesters gather before they set out for the Planned Parenthood clinic, with their stark posters reading: “I regret my abortion.” This is where they pick up the signs that are dotted along every major road in South Dakota, calling for a definitive end to abortion.
In the letters column of the local paper, the Argus Leader, opinion seems to be running in favor of the ban, with little tolerance for those who won't fall into line. “I am tired of people ranting about how women have the ‘right’ to choose,” read one recent letter. “Osama bin Laden is pro-choice. He thinks he has the right to choose who lives and dies, based on his own twisted standards. Perhaps America's pro-choicers should elect him as their spokesman.”
But South Dakota's pro-choice activists believe a silent majority in the state does support abortion rights; it's just that most of them are not ready to come out and say so openly. “We are a pro-choice state in denial,” says a woman, who works in the state legislature at Pierre and asked not to be named. “I have a friend who insists that she is pro-life, but then she says: ‘I am not going to tell another woman what to do.’”
Moving the goalposts
In the years since Roe vs. Wade, a generation of anti-abortion activists have successfully shifted the debate about reproduction and abortion away from the primacy of women's rights to those of the child she is carrying. In South Dakota, the argument has taken an additional twist, with Unruh claiming that abortion also runs against the best interests of women. She says she is seeking to protect women from what she claims are the lasting psychological and physical scars of abortion.