Abortion fight heads to S.D. polls

SUNDAY, NOV. 5, 2006

YANKTON, S.D. – The yard signs seem to be everywhere in South Dakota, declaring in pink and blue: “Vote Yes For Life.” They dot the lawns of churches and auto body shops, warehouses, grocery stores and parochial schools, isolated farmhouses and suburban bungalows.

Leslee Unruh, who’s managing the campaign to ban virtually all abortions in South Dakota, says she’s distributed 42,000 signs. That’s one for every 12 registered voters.

But while she points to the signs as evidence of broad grass-roots support, polls and interviews with voters reveal a deep uneasiness with the ban, which would criminalize abortions at every stage of pregnancy and in every circumstance, except if necessary to prevent the woman’s death. Women would not be prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy, but anyone who helped could be charged with a felony, punishable by five years in prison.

A poll released Thursday by KELO-TV in Sioux Falls found that 50 percent of likely voters oppose the ban and 41 percent support it, with the rest undecided. A survey at the end of October, sponsored by the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, had nearly identical results.

“It appears to me as though South Dakotans are pretty much where the rest of the country is: We don’t like abortion, but we don’t think it should be banned completely,” said Don Dahlin, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota.

On a blustery night last week, Marie Arneson stood in her doorway in this isolated town of 12,000, pondering that very issue. Her church supports the ban “and I’ve listened to that,” said Arneson, 60. “But there are other things to be considered as well. We want to know if there are any openings for people who are rape and incest victims.”

Her face was troubled as she sorted through her conflicting emotions. She had a stack of articles about the ban on the kitchen table; she and her husband planned to read them all. Arneson couldn’t say yet what she’d decide when she steps into the voting booth.

Each side has raised about $2 million. The group campaigning to keep the abortion ban boasts that 65 percent of its money has come from state residents – another sign, Unruh said, that South Dakotans are behind her. But the in-state total includes $750,000 from a shadowy corporation set up by a state legislator who opposes abortions.

The group working against the ban, South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, has raised less than 9 percent of its money from state residents; most has come from abortion-rights supporters across the country.

The anti-abortion campaign has tried to ease voter concerns about the ban’s broad reach by assuring them that rape and incest victims – and indeed, all women – could still use the morning-after pill, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of sex. Under South Dakota law, however, pharmacists are not required to dispense the pill, and emergency rooms are not required to offer it to victims of sexual assault.


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