Beyond South Dakota

With all the attention on Ohio, Virginia, Montana and a few other states, it would be easy to miss something very significant that happened in South Dakota on election night: a victory that just might point the way forward for progressives on a broad constellation of personal liberties.

The voters of South Dakota, 55 percent to 45 percent, rejected the draconian abortion ban that conservatives had succeeded in pushing through the state legislature, and the governor had signed earlier this year — a ban that had no exceptions to protect the health of the woman, or in cases of rape or incest; a ban that would have sent doctors to jail for protecting a woman’s health as they are trained to do; a ban based on “findings” that claimed that women by definition could not choose abortion freely, because it is against their nurturing natures.

In the course of this campaign, the people of South Dakota heard from their fellow-citizens — mothers, doctors, public officials — that their Legislature had gone far beyond its appropriate role. They agreed that government has no business getting between a doctor and patient, and denying them both the right to make their own medically-informed decisions.

What’s important about South Dakota is that, rather than rely only on court challenges, progressives decided to engage and stand with local citizens against the law. Some progressives had concerns about this strategy — but it worked for the voters of South Dakota. And standing our ground is a way to re-energize progressives for the task ahead.

There is no room for complacency. At least a dozen other state legislatures have considered similar laws in the past year. The organizers even pledged to try again in South Dakota.

And the election results weren’t even final Wednesday morning before the Supreme Court opened a hearing on the federal ban on so-called “partial birth abortion” passed by Congress in 2003.

Like the South Dakota law, the federal ban also egregiously substitutes politics for medical decision-making. It denies doctors’ authority to determine the safest procedure for women needing to terminate troubled pregnancies. It is so vague that doctors say they would have no idea what was permitted and what could subject them to prosecution and jail time.

As I listened to the arguments Wednesday morning, I found it so striking that this federal ban, like the South Dakota law, puts government in the business of interfering with the practice of medicine, taking decisions out of the hands of doctors and putting women’s health at risk.

It may well be the case that five justices are prepared to uphold this law. If they do, they will essentially have gutted Roe’s protections for many women without actually having to overturn it.

It’s time for a strong focus on persuading the public, on grassroots organizing and on political action — in addition to challenging bad laws in court. We must start from the recognition that Americans don’t want government in their bedrooms and doctors’ offices, and don’t believe government should be the one deciding which women control their own lives and which do not.

The win in South Dakota, as well as the defeat at the polls of proposed parental-notification laws in Oregon and California, shows that such a strategy can be successful. The South Dakota case, in addition to rolling back a very bad law, has galvanized a whole new — and in some cases unlikely — cohort of citizen activists in a way that court cases alone cannot do. It took the issue out of the abstract language of legal documents and into the real lives of real people who came forward to oppose the law.

It’s worth noting that we had this success without trying to hide what we were talking about, or pretend that abortion wasn’t the issue. In South Dakota, citizens who had never discussed these hard issues before were able to talk about them and conclude that they didn’t like what their elected officials had done. That should point the way forward for progressives who are debating among themselves what a progressive position on abortion should be.

That’s the kind of renewed grassroots energy we need across the country, because make no mistake, the challenge is not just one law. And the challenge is not just Roe v. Wade. The challenge is standing against the right wing’s cumulative efforts to strip away protections, choices and basic dignity from women. These efforts have especially hurt women who are effectively denied control over their reproductive decisions because they cannot reach a clinic or cannot pay for its services, or cannot even obtain contraceptive services, let alone an abortion.

That’s the level on which the progressive movement needs to re-engage. The first test of a larger commitment to this strategy will come in 2008 — and that is only two years away. Progressives depend — this year and every year — on mobilizing women voters and speaking to women’s issues.

To do this, we should craft a broad strategy that advances a constellation of issues that affect women’s ability to order their own lives: Reproductive rights, including abortion but also access to the contraception that prevents unwanted pregnancies; and the education and economic opportunities that empower women in fact, not just in name. Progressives can show that all those issues link back to a fundamental commitment to putting women and their families at the center of decision-making about their own lives — without government in the middle. But we need to start now.

Kate Michelman is former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. This article is reprinted from TomPaine.com.