The superintendent of Mount Rushmore was surprised at first when people from all over the country started calling up to express their opinion about South Dakota’s ban on nearly all abortions.
Some callers said they were so upset that they would never visit Mount Rushmore, South Dakota’s No. 1 tourist attraction. Others said they were so thrilled that they would make a point of coming to see the chiseled faces of four U.S. presidents in the Black Hills.
On further reflection, Superintendent Gerard Baker decided that the messages from far and wide made sense, because Mount Rushmore is a symbol of freedom.
“That’s what we’re all about here,” he said. “That’s what America is all about, people expressing their freedom and people expressing their choices and so forth.”
In an uproar that has taken many South Dakotans by surprise, politicians and state agencies have been bombarded in the past few weeks with thousands upon thousands of calls, letters and e-mails — pro and con — from across the country and around the world.
And a few small groups have called for a tourism boycott of South Dakota, urging people to avoid such attractions as Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, and the Corn Palace, an arena in Mitchell whose walls are covered with colorful ears of corn.
Strictest abortion law in the nation
The furor was prompted by the passage of the strictest abortion law in America — a ban on all abortions except to save a woman’s life, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The measure, set to take effect July 1, is aimed at overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade that established the right to an abortion.
Planned Parenthood, which operates South Dakota’s only abortion clinic, has said it will decide soon whether to challenge the measure in court or press for a statewide referendum in November.
“Obviously, this is one of the most contentious issues in American society, so when a state does something dramatic, I think you can reasonably expect it will elicit a pretty strong response from the folks who have an interest in the issue,” said Don Dahlin, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota,
In a state where many people do not bother to lock their cars or homes, security was tightened at the state Capitol as the Legislature debated the abortion measure, with state troopers more visible than usual, and plainclothes officers sitting in during a committee hearing.
Steps were also taken to protect some of the bill’s main sponsors when they returned home.
But “to the best of my knowledge, we’ve had no threats,” said Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, who signed the law March 6.
The governor’s office has set up a call center with five lines just to take calls about the abortion measure. An estimated 10,000 calls, e-mails and letters arrived in a two-week period. “I don’t know of any other single event that has generated more interest than this,” said press secretary Mark Johnston.
Tourism brings in millions
Tourism is South Dakota’s second-largest industry, behind agriculture, with visitors to the state spending $809 million in 2005, according to the Tourism Department. Mount Rushmore received 2.75 million visitors in 2005.
Among those calling for a boycott is the Women’s Medical Fund, an abortion rights organization based in Madison, Wis. “Our message is that if they are going to treat women in this inhumane way, they can expect to pay a price,” said Anne Gaylor, the group’s director.
State Tourism Director Billie Jo Waara said that her office has been getting a dozen or so calls a day from people on both sides of the issue. Some say they will not vacation in South Dakota, but very few of those who had already made travel plans have canceled, she said.
So far, “it’s unclear whether it will be significant or not,” Waara said.
Dahlin said the effect of a tourism boycott would probably be relatively small because the state relies on family tourism, not the kind of large-scale convention business that can be shifted all at once to another city.
At Mount Rushmore, Baker said the controversy has had no effect yet.
Baker said it’s a free country, but added: “I guess if I had to say something, I would say if you’re bringing your family here and you decide not to do that, what you’re doing is cheating your family, you’re cheating your youngsters by not bringing them to learn about this place.”