On the ground in South Dakota

The head of South Dakota's only abortion facility describes what the past two days have been like.


Rebecca Traister
March 8, 2006 3:40AM (UTC)

Yesterday I spoke to Sarah Stoesz, who's in charge of the Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota affiliate of Planned Parenthood. The Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls, S.D., had been deluged by confused and supportive callers in the wake of the news that Gov. Mike Rounds had signed the bill banning nearly all abortions in the state.

The bill will be tied up by legal challenges and not go into effect unless it gets past the Supreme Court, a process that is likely to take years. That means that abortion services in South Dakota are unchanged, though they have been limited for some time.

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"We are the only place in South Dakota to provide abortions," said Stoesz, "and this is a state that covers two time zones, so women have to drive hundreds of miles." Explaining that there are no doctors in the state who will perform the procedure in private practice, Stoesz further clarified that "there are also no doctors in South Dakota that will work for us." Planned Parenthood instead flies in physicians from Minnesota approximately eight times a month. (The same Minnesota doctors are also flown to North Dakota, another state without doctors willing to perform abortions. About a dozen doctors travel this tri-state circuit each month, said Stoesz.)

Approximately 800 abortions a year are performed in South Dakota; the number is as low as it is because women often find themselves closer to Fargo, N.D., or Montana than to Sioux Falls, and because matching up a patient with a visiting doctor isn't easy. "It doesn't always work for women's personal lives to come in on the specific days you can fly a doctor in," she said, adding wistfully that "we would have [services] available every single day if it weren't so challenging to get the doctors here."

Even though it has always been a struggle to provide women's healthcare in these states, Stoesz said she was still thrown by the impact of yesterday's signing. "Today has been sad," she said, slowly. "Not that we didn't know that the governor was likely to sign this bill, but coming face to face with this shocking attack on women's health and safety has left us all feeling, just, very ... sad. It's one thing to know in the abstract who your opponents are, and what they say they're going to do. It's quite another thing to see it actually happen."

Stoesz said that the phones had been ringing with messages of support and offers to give money, but also with patients perplexed about what was happening. "We've had patients calling and saying, 'Can I still come in for my appointment?'" she said. "They are confused and concerned, even about things like getting their birth control." The most important thing right now, said Stoesz, is letting the women of South Dakota know that "we will never abandon them. In particular here where care is so hard to access, we want all women to know that we will never close our clinic and we will never abandon them."

What if, down the line, the Supreme Court makes it so that they have no choice in the matter? "The law will never be enacted," said Stoesz forcefully. "Because we will challenge it legally and we will win." Even so, she said, "we are preparing. Because this is never over. As long as men continue to be threatened by women's sexuality and as long as there are those who want to insert themselves into private healthcare and religious decision making in this country, this will never be over."

In the meantime, should there be any doctors out there looking to move to the scenic Dakotas, here's a real-estate site that might prove useful.

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Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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