On the eve of the midterm elections, one church in South Dakota held round-the-clock prayer vigils imploring God to keep the state’s toughest-ever law criminalizing abortions on the books. But it wasn’t enough; voters rejected the law by a 10-point margin: 55 to 45 percent.
NO-CHOICE RALLY: Leslee Unruh led the recent campaign to ban abortions in South Dakota.
That hardly constitutes a mandate. In fact, the resounding defeat falls short of the traditional two-to-one advantage supporters of legal and safe abortions usually enjoy when facing off against those who unequivocally oppose all abortions. But in conservative South Dakota, victory in this up-or-down vote is immeasurably significant.
At best, South Dakota voters rallied for reproductive freedom on Election Day. At worst, they expressed dissatisfaction with the strict wording of the bill. Yet whatever the personal motivations, a middle-ground truth can be found in the ballots that were cast.
The fact is, most mainstream Americans understand that legalized abortion is necessary. They neither want to see abortion criminalized nor victims of rape and incest further victimized. But they also oppose abortion as a means of birth control and don’t want it available “on demand.”
Instead, Americans want and need what they call “good reasons” for terminating a pregnancy. The decision is never an easy one, and, frankly, society likes it that way. Abortions, after all, should not be handed out “frivolously.”
Opponents in South Dakota, however, are not so keen to discern these shades of gray. Leslee Unruh, who headed the campaign to ban abortion, and Republican governor Michael Rounds, who won re-election despite signing the abortion ban into law and reiterating his desire to challenge the landmark 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade, are tireless opponents of abortion rights.
“We have an army now that we didn’t have before,” Unruh told the LA Times. She and her supporters have vowed to fight back.
All the more reason, then, that we should not surrender to the heady intoxication of last week’s Democratic congressional sweep. Liberty demands constant vigilance; having spent three decades facing down abortion opponents, I’m well aware that there are millions of reproductive-rights opponents like Unruh who are unlikely to back down from a fight.
Today, two generations of post-Roe adults have no memory of a world without legal abortion. Having grown up with this birthright, their passion for preserving hard-won reproductive rights has cooled. Yet those who wonder why vigilance is so important should ask grandma, and then take a place on the front lines.
The US Supreme Court will soon hear arguments favoring a federal ban on the 1.5 percent of late-term pregnancy terminations, craftily named “partial-birth abortions” by the same steadfast opposition that Unruh represents. And other states threaten to duplicate South Dakota’s now-defeated ban.
Having celebrated victory, we must quickly move on to the next defense of a freedom under constant assault. That’s how it is; that’s how it always has been.
The writer is former executive director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island and author of The A Word — Abortion: Real Women, Tough Choices, Personal Freedom (Gadd Books, 2006).