Image: Megan Barnett
Evans Gallery  /  AP
Megan Barnett, 22, and her 18-month-old daughter, Maria, who was conceived as a result of a rape in 2004, are seen in a 2006 photo released by Vote Yes for Life. Barnett has appeared before the South Dakota Legislature and in campaign ads supporting a proposed ban on abortions.
updated 10/8/2006 3:31:04 PM ET 2006-10-08T19:31:04

Circled around a living room, sipping coffee, five long-acquainted couples grappled with their stark differences on a topic they would have skirted in the past but now cannot avoid — abortion.

Like other South Dakotans, people in this tiny farming town are confronting a historic opportunity on Nov. 7. They’ll sway a tortuous national debate by making a choice no statewide electorate has faced before: whether to approve a sweeping ban on virtually all abortions.

“None of us think abortion is a desirable thing,” said Tom Dean, a family physician who hosted the discussion along with his wife, Kathy. “But it’s not a problem for government to solve by passing a rigid law.”

Yet Lynn Ogren, who helps her husband run a sheep and cattle ranch, choked up with emotion as she explained her support for the ban.

“I value every child’s life, whether it’s from a rape or not,” she told her friends. “Who’s fighting for these kids?”

The measure would allow abortions only to save a pregnant woman’s life. It makes no exception for other health concerns, or for cases of rape or incest; a doctor performing illegal abortions could face five years in prison.

The Legislature passed the law overwhelmingly in February, expecting it to be challenged in court and perhaps lead to a U.S. Supreme Court reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Instead of suing, opponents swiftly collected signatures to force a referendum; the law will be scrapped if voters reject it.

‘We’re David, they’re Goliath’
Each side depicts the other as dominated by out-of-state groups — and indeed such forces are active, viewing the vote as an unprecedented gauge of public sentiment on abortion. The Rev. Jerry Falwell has urged his conservative followers to donate in support of the ban; Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America have raised funds to oppose it.

“We’re David, they’re Goliath,” contended Leslee Unruh, head of the campaign group supporting the ban. Parked outside her VoteYesForLife.com office in Sioux Falls were cars with a blunt bumper sticker: “The Killing Stops Here.”

The most recent independent poll, in July, found 47 percent of voters opposed the ban, 39 percent favored it, 14 percent were undecided. When asked if they would approve a ban with exceptions for rape and incest, support rose to 59 percent.

Unruh, who had an abortion years ago that she now regrets, says momentum is turning as more voters hear her side’s core message: Abortion hurts women. In the event of defeat, she vows to keep fighting.

“Sometimes it’s not about votes — it’s about the truth,” she said.

High stakes
Jan Nicolay, a former school principal and Republican state legislator, is co-chair of the campaign to keep abortion legal. She knows the stakes are high.

“People from other states are telling me, ’You’re in the limelight. Good luck. Please do everything you can to defeat it,”’ she said.

Doug Dreyer  /  AP
Dr. Tom Dean and his wife, Kathy, who both serve on the board of the group opposing a statewide ban on abortions in South Dakota, stand Thursday on the deck of their home overlooking Wessington Springs, S.D.

Among her colleagues is Russ Tarver, a retired Methodist minister who signed a statement against the abortion ban along with 16 other ministers. “Some legislators were stunned to learn there were pastors on the other side of the issue,” he said.

If the ban is defeated, anti-abortion activists might try again later with a milder version making exceptions for rape and incest, but the outcome would be heralded nationally as a major victory for abortion rights. If the ban is approved, several other state legislatures might follow South Dakota’s example — building momentum for a possible Supreme Court review of Roe v. Wade.

Each side has recruited South Dakota rape victims to aid their campaigns. Connie Pich, impregnated by a rapist as a teenager in 1973, said victims must be able to choose freely whether to bear the child. On the pro-ban side, Megan Barnett has spoken at the Legislature and in campaign videos about how glad she is to have borne a daughter resulting from a rape.

Two wrongs don’t make a right’
Barnett, in a telephone interview, expressed empathy with women in comparable plights, but said abortion shouldn’t be an option.  “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” she said. “It’s a baby, whether you’re raped or not. You need a choice both you and your baby can live with.”

The ban’s supporters note that the measure allows rape and incest victims to get emergency contraception, which is effective if taken within 72 hours. Opponents say emergency contraception isn’t widely available in South Dakota, and argue that many victims are too overwrought to seek prompt help.

“It’s a sham,” Nicolay said of the contraception provision. She noted that anti-abortion lawmakers quashed a measure this year that would have required hospitals to inform raped women that emergency contraception is available.

One of the legislators responsible for the toughly worded measure is House Majority Leader Larry Rhoden, a Republican cattle rancher. He was swayed by women’s testimony that their abortions left emotional scars, but now — aware of polls showing his side behind — he has second thoughts.

“I’ve spent a great deal of time and thought wondering if it would have been wiser to write in the exceptions,” he said. “We have a long row to hoe based on the numbers I’ve seen.”

Debating a private matter out loud
In some ways, South Dakota is an odd venue for the showdown. It has had no resident abortion provider for 10 years, and most of its 800 or so annual abortions are performed at an often-picketed Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls by doctors flying in once a week from Minnesota.

Sarah Stoesz, president of Planned Parenthood’s Minnesota/Dakotas chapter, said even people on the sidelines of the abortion debate rallied to help the petition drive after lawmakers approved the ban.

“It was a political moment like I’ve never seen, a spontaneous uprising of grass-roots fury,” she said. “Abortion isn’t a subject people normally discuss, but this has forced ordinary mainstream people to talk about it.”

A case in point is Wessington Springs, a town of 1,000 where pride in its seven churches and Shakespearean Gardens mingles with worries over business failures and an exodus of young people.

Tom Dean, whose family’s local roots date to 1882, and his wife, Kathy, a nurse-midwife, decided to serve on the anti-ban campaign’s statewide board, then placed a small ad in the local paper explaining their stance.

“We were a little concerned — not for our safety, but of offending our friends,” said Kathy Dean, a longtime abortion-rights supporter.

A question of choice
For several years, the Deans have hosted a monthly discussion group, broaching an array of topics. Its members recently convened to wrestle with the abortion ban.

Near the end, after listening in silence, Evelyn Bradley spoke out.

“Life isn’t always black and white,” said Bradley, the wife of an Air Force retiree. “There are situations where it would be really difficult to have another child, and I’d resent the law saying you have to have it. Shouldn’t I be allowed to make that choice?”

The issue has been raised at the town’s Roman Catholic church by the priest, Jim Friedrich, who fervently supports the ban.

“So far no one (in the parish) has spoken against it,” he said quietly in his rectory. “The way I spoke, I doubt they’d have the guts to tell me otherwise.”

John Paulson, minister at nearby Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, takes a different tack.

“We can’t read God’s mind on this,” he said. “As pastor, I’d support people voting their conscience with a prayerful heart.”

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