Antiabortion Campaign Waves Feminist Flag

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Times Staff Writer

In the fight to preserve the toughest abortion ban in the nation, the talk is not of a fetus’ right to life. It’s of a woman’s right to motherhood.

Antiabortion activists here deliberately avoid the familiar slogans of their movement. They don’t talk about the “murder of innocent babies” or quote the Bible on the sanctity of life. Instead, campaign manager Leslee Unruh has taken what she calls a feminist approach, arguing that legalized abortion exploits women and -- for their sake -- must be stopped.

The bumper stickers and T-shirts that fill campaign headquarters spell out her message, in pink and blue: “Abortion Hurts Women.”


“We women buy the choice line. We’re panicked, or we’re being pressured, or we’re ashamed to have a child outside marriage,” Unruh said. She speaks from personal experience; she had an abortion nearly 30 years ago and said her life since has been darkened with regret and longing. “If you don’t do your job right as a mother,” Unruh asked, “what good is everything else?”

Abortion-rights supporters call such rhetoric patronizing and presumptuous; they say many women find that ending unwanted pregnancies brings relief and the freedom to pursue other dreams. But they acknowledge that Unruh’s tactic is effective -- and that it has thrown their campaign off balance.

“Historically, this debate has been focused on fetal rights, fetal life. We have a lot of language about that,” said Sarah Stoesz, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and North and South Dakota. “This adds an element we’re not accustomed to. It’s a different line of debate.... And that is something we struggle with politically.”

The ban, passed overwhelmingly by the South Dakota Legislature in February, makes it a felony to help any woman terminate a pregnancy at any stage, unless an abortion is necessary to prevent her death. Women would not face criminal charges, but their doctors could get up to five years in prison.

Rather than challenge the law in court, Planned Parenthood chose to put it to a public referendum, gambling that people would vote to repeal it on Nov. 7. (South Dakota law permits interest groups to refer legislation to the ballot if they can collect enough signatures.)

If voters reject the ban, abortion-rights advocates hope it will deter states such as Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Georgia and Rhode Island, which have been considering similar measures. If the ban is upheld, Planned Parenthood will challenge it in court. Antiabortion leaders would welcome that battle. They hope the U.S. Supreme Court will use the case to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that found a constitutional right to abortion.


Both sides call this election crucial and are putting out urgent appeals to raise millions of dollars for the fight.

But if this is the frontline of the abortion wars, the guns sound oddly muted.

Attuned to the values of this very conservative state, abortion-rights activists have decided not to make a stand on a woman’s right to choose. The big poster outside their campaign headquarters makes a much milder point: “This law simply goes too far.” One of their TV ads starts out: “South Dakotans agree, honor and protect human life.” The ad goes on to affirm support for reducing the number of abortions, but argues that the law is too inflexible.

The only exception in the law states physicians will not be prosecuted for procedures “intended to prevent the death of a pregnant mother.” Even then, however, doctors must try their best to save “the life of her unborn child.”

A provision allows women to use the morning-after pill, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of sex. But under South Dakota law, pharmacists are not required to dispense the pill -- or refer women to a pharmacy that will. And the Legislature has repeatedly voted down a bill to require emergency rooms to stock the contraceptive.

Walking a neighborhood of gracious homes the other day to rally voters against the law, Emma Tupper, 20, made just one pitch, again and again. “Our main concern is the lack of exception for rape and incest,” she said. Some residents nodded and pledged to vote against the ban. Nearly as many politely said they would support it.

“Even if there’s no exception for rape and incest?” Tupper asked one elderly man.

“I’ve looked at the bill pretty closely, and I feel comfortable with my decision,” he replied, and closed the door.


Tupper -- who came from Seattle to work on this campaign -- walked on, crunching through drifts of yellow leaves. “It’s a tough state,” she said.

An independent Mason-Dixon poll in June found voters opposed to the ban, 47% to 39%. But a Zogby International survey last month, commissioned by an antiabortion group in Washington, D.C., found that gap had narrowed to 47% to 44%. In another unsettling sign for abortion-rights supporters, four Republican state senators who opposed the ban lost their seats in the primary election this summer.

“I don’t know if I want to say we have a lot of momentum,” said Jan Nicolay, a former Republican legislator working to overturn the ban.

The antiabortion camp has attracted hundreds of activists; some have brought with them the strident language Unruh had hoped to avoid. A voter guide produced by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls refers to abortion as a “moral evil,” part of “the culture of death.” Last month, activists from Wisconsin waved photos of dismembered fetuses at a busy intersection in Rapid City.

Unruh says she hates such messages “with a passion.” Banning abortion should be about “compassion and love,” she says -- not “anger and death.”

On a recent afternoon, she spotted a family of volunteers wearing olive-green T-shirts that read “Abortion -- the leading cause of death in America.” Unruh sent an aide to get them official campaign shirts, which feature the cheery faces of three women and a bright-eyed baby.


One of the women on the shirt is Kayla Brandt, 29, who had an abortion four years ago. “My mind-set was, if it’s OK for so many other people, it will be OK for me,” she said. But she was so burdened with guilt and shame, she said, she could barely function. In a radio spot, she says mothers “weren’t designed to abort our babies” and asks voters to spare other women “the pain of imagining a life that could have been.”

Her voice catching, she adds: “Please, to protect women like me, vote yes on Referred Law 6.”

The spot caught the attention of Dick Murphy, 58, a local shop owner. He thought at first it was intended to evoke sympathy for a woman’s right to choose. “Then it flipped the other way around,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s a new twist.’ ” The ad did not change Murphy’s mind; he still plans to vote against the ban.

But other voters are torn.

Roger Turnquist, 57, a rancher in town to take his wife and daughter out to lunch, said he could speak for the family: They all backed the ban. “We’re Catholic,” he explained. His wife, Helen, looked uneasy.

“I’m a little pro-choice,” she said. “But I’ll probably vote for the ban because I’m Catholic.” She paused. “I really haven’t decided.”

The South Dakota fight marks the first time antiabortion groups have built a public campaign around abortion’s effect on women. But for the last few years, activists have tested the tactic as they lobby state legislatures for measures such as more counseling for women seeking abortions.


“It’s been very helpful for the pro-life movement.... Who doesn’t want to protect women?” said Daniel McConchie, vice president of Americans United for Life, a national group based in Chicago.

Unruh’s campaign has made that point in several ways. Along with the radio spot, Brandt tells her story in an online video and campaign fliers. The campaign has also distributed a DVD with testimony from Brandt and three women who decided against abortion in tough circumstances. (One segment is titled, “I love my baby who was conceived by rape.”)

Volunteers offer the DVD to voters as they canvass door to door; it’s also been shown in churches and at dozens of house parties.

“The clips really hit me hard,” said Jazmine Brown, 13, who was moved to volunteer for the campaign after seeing the DVD at church. “I knew women were hurt by abortion, but that implanted it in my heart.”

The concept that women are exploited by abortion has been nurtured by the many “post-abortive support groups” around the nation. Unruh runs one such group in Sioux Falls; the women gather to mourn and to help one another through “side effects” as varied as substance abuse, anorexia and detached parenting.

Their stories have led to a shift in perspective that parallels the religious right’s changing attitude toward homosexuality. After years of condemning homosexual behavior as evil, some ministries have begun to portray gay men and lesbians as victims of an immoral society, led astray by gay-pride parades, gay romances on TV, and other signals that same-sex relationships are normal.


Similarly, women who choose abortion are now increasingly treated as victims, let down by a society that keeps abortion legal and relatively accessible.

Abortion-rights supporters respond with exasperation. The American Psychological Assn. has found that abortion carries few long-term emotional risks. And clinic doctors routinely turn away women who are uncertain or seem to have been coerced.

Some women undoubtedly regret their abortions. “But women also marry someone who turns out to be an abusive spouse, and we don’t therefore say that marriage hurts women,” Stoesz said.

With so much at stake, political scientist Robert Burns says he expects both sides to turn up the rhetoric as the election draws near. Burns, who teaches at South Dakota State University, will not venture to predict the vote’s outcome. But it’s safe, he said, to foretell this much: “It will get down and dirty before it’s all over.”