South Dakota, sexual politics, and the American elections

Ruth Rosen
26 October 2006

This is an "only in America" story that takes place in the small, conservative state of South Dakota. A few months ago, the national media were obsessed with this state's effort to ban all abortions. Recently, the story has faded, eclipsed by other electoral news, most notably the sharply worsening situation in Iraq and domestic scandals. But the effort to forbid all abortions is far from an insignificant matter. It is a strategic battle in the nation's endless cultural wars and could have a lasting impact on every American woman's reproductive rights in the United States.

In February 2006, the legislature in South Dakota voted to prohibit all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. The only exception was to save the life of a pregnant woman. A doctor who violated the ban could be sentenced to five years in prison.

Those who passed the ban - signed into law by South Dakota's governor on 5 March, and in effect from 1 July - purposefully set out to directly challenge Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman's constitutional right to abortion in the United States. They assumed their opponents would sue and that the law would force the Supreme Court to reconsider its original 1973 decision.

Instead, a coalition of women's-rights advocates, reproductive-rights and civil-liberties groups outflanked anti-abortion legislators and took the debate directly to the people, rather than to the courts. They collected sufficient signatures to place a referendum on the 7 November ballot, asking South Dakotan voters whether they really wanted to ban all abortions. If approved, the ban against abortion will remain in effect, unless it is declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. If defeated, the South Dakotan legislature will have been repudiated by the voters.

Right now, the battle over the referendum is still too close to call. The people in South Dakota are known for their politeness, conservatism, privacy, and avoidance of confrontation. Many good friends won't even discuss the subject with each other, even though activists in the abortion wars, all over the country, eagerly await the results.

By July, 47% of South Dakotan voters opposed the ban, but 59% said they would support it if it had permitted abortion in the case of rape and incest. If the ban passes, thirteen other states are poised to pass similar laws. And if the Supreme Court upholds the South Dakota ban by superseding Roe vs Wade, the right to abortion would be left up to each individual state.

Ruth Rosen is a historian and journalist who formerly wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. She now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a senior fellow at the Longview Institute. A new edition of her book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (Penguin, 2001) will be republished in 2007 with an updated chronology and epilogue

A ripple effect

This political battle, however, is more than part of the endless national debate over abortion. It is also a struggle within the Republican Party itself. The ban on all abortions is the inevitable result of President Bush's success in enlisting the religious right as an important part of his political base. But many Republicans are also moderates or libertarians, not just social conservatives. In a state where 48% of the voters are registered as Republicans, moderates in the party rightly fear negative political fallout if all abortions are banned.

South Dakotans are also famous for avoiding government intrusion into their lives. "We're kind of independent folks here, and we like to keep our business private," Casey Murschel, a Republican state lawmaker, who is fighting against the ban, told the news media.

The battle-lines are clearly drawn. Anti-abortion activists broadcast the stories of women who have been raped but now blissfully cuddle their children. Abortion-rights groups televise ads that dramatise the trauma of women victimised by rape or incest who would be forced to carry the child of a criminal.

If the abortion ban is approved "there will be a ripple effect nationwide," says Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, a major reproductive-rights organisation. "It will be part of the presidential debate, congressional debates, governors' debates and state legislative races." Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. Magazine, adds that "If they strike down Roe, all abortion is at risk in this country, we estimate about thirty states would ban it."

They're both right, but at the moment, the attention of the nation is not particularly focused on South Dakota, even though the mid-term elections are just two weeks away. Come election-day, however, that will almost certainly change.

The missing threads

Instead, the news publicises the country's growing disillusionment with how the Bush presidency has deceived the American people, manipulated their fears of terrorism, launched a catastrophic war in Iraq with cherry-picked intelligence, failed to respond to the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina, and smeared itself with corruption and incompetence at the highest levels of government.

Then there is the great scandal involving congressional representative Mark Foley, whose overtly sexual emails to 16-year old congressional pages have turned the public's mind to what it most enjoys reading in tabloids and watching on television's so-called news programmes. After five years of deferential indifference towards weapons of mass destruction, the torture of Iraqi detainees, or the erosion of American civil liberties, investigative journalists are suddenly asking the tough questions: what did the Republican leadership know about Foley's behaviour? And when did they know it?

True, the Foley scandal is far more titillating than South Dakota's referendum on abortion. Yet Mark Foley is just one more politician, in a long and dishonorable tradition, who has abused his political power to seek sexual pleasure.

Alongside this sexual scandal is the rising expectation that Democrats might actually take back either the House of Representatives or the Senate, or even both. This growing drumbeat is accompanied by teasing speculations about the ability of charismatic Senator Barack Obama (Illinois) or frontrunner Hillary Clinton (New York) to win the presidency in 2008.

What's missing in all this electoral chatter are domestic issues that could actually change the lives of minorities and women in the United States. It has become a cliché that Democrats need a spine transplant. Despite the South Dakota referendum, they barely mention the word abortion. Nor do they talk about working families who need child and elder care, flexible working hours, universal health coverage, or a higher minimum wage that could lift many low-wage workers above "the working poor."

The stressful, hectic lives of working mothers are all but ignored by those who are running for elective office, even though American women could, if they all voted, easily sway an election in the United States. This is because women who have never married, or are divorced, or widowed, experience greater economic insecurity and tend to vote for Democrats. But too many never bother to vote at all.

For much of the nation, as well the rest of the world, the most important issue is whether or not the Democrats regain political power in both houses of Congress. If that should happen, then they could break the Bush's administration's stranglehold on expanded executive power. There might even be investigations of war crimes, questions of who knew what and when, and relief around the world that the United States is showing even provisional signs of rejoining the international community with greater humility and diplomatic decency.

For now, the referendum over abortion in South Dakota is a sleeper issue, as are many other policies that affect the daily lives of women, minorities and working families. Yet the consequences of this vote may well have a lasting impact on the reproductive choices and lives of all women in the United States.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData