What do women need? South Dakota voters debate

Is the answer "control over their sacred decisions," or "to be protected from making rash choices"?

Published October 9, 2006 11:36PM (EDT)

With Election Day less than a month away, the fight to influence South Dakota voters' opinions on the state's sweeping abortion ban has kicked into high gear. Somewhat surprisingly, both pro-choice and antiabortion advocates are using rhetoric about women's unique natures and essential preferences to win votes.

As Feministing noted today, a group of Native American women (with some help from the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project) are campaigning against the ban with advertising and rallies. Feministing's Ann notes that "it's a great example of messaging that comes directly from a community of color -- and not from folks speaking on its behalf." Ann's post features a picture of a flier aimed at Lakota women, which frames choice in terms of the sacred feminine: "Women are sacred," the flier reads. "Our mothers are the teachers of our ways ... The state legislature is trying to apply rigid restrictions on decisions that are sacred." The flier segues into more traditional pro-choice language like "all children deserve to be wanted" and "tell the legislature to promote comprehensive sex ed in our schools, tell them to work to reduce domestic violence and sexual assault."

On the other side, today's Los Angeles Times observes that the "South Dakota fight marks the first time antiabortion groups have built a public campaign around abortion's effect on women." And the message, emblazoned on bumper stickers and other campaign materials, is "Abortion hurts women." One radio ad features a testimonial from a 29-year-old woman who had an abortion and regretted it: Women "weren't designed to abort our babies," she says, describing "the pain of imagining a life that could have been." She concludes, "Please, to protect women like me, vote yes on Referred Law 6." A DVD from the same campaign has a segment titled "I love my baby who was conceived by rape." The Times reports that "the concept that women are exploited by abortion has been nurtured by the many 'post-abortive support groups' around the nation ... women who choose abortion are now increasingly treated as victims, let down by a society that keeps abortion legal and relatively accessible."

Of course, choice advocates argue that there are better ways to protect women than passing paternalistic laws that make their choices for them. But they admit that this antiabortion campaign's pro-woman spin is clever marketing. Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and North and South Dakota, told the Times, "Historically, this debate has been focused on fetal rights, fetal life. We have a lot of language about that ... This adds an element we're not accustomed to."

As South Dakota voters mull their options, we're hoping they'll recognize that women deserve control over their own bodies and reproductive health. But it's certainly too close to call as of now: A recent Zogby International survey found that voters oppose the ban by a narrow 47 percent, with 44 percent in favor.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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